Employees who describe their team as a ‘work family’ might take loyalty a step too far. It can also harm workplace culture and employee wellbeing.
Are employees in your business close to each other? Are they part of the [insert company name] family? Would they do anything to help each other out and support workplace culture?
If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, that could be a great sign.
“There’s nothing wrong with a friendly demeanour and having fun working with your colleagues,” says Joshua Luna, Founder of Mgmt, a leadership development trainer in Chicago.
“We know that trust and close relationships can be leveraged to build high-performing teams.”
However, there is such a thing as being too close at work, and sometimes a tight-knit, family culture can backfire.
A loyal ‘work family’
When a team views itself as a family, employees generally have each other’s backs and quickly jump to their coworker’s defence.
This is great in theory and signifies strong working relationships, but it can easily slide into dangerous territory if you’re turning a blind eye to poor behaviour, or covering for your manager.
“The researchers presented scenarios where one person would be cheating the company, lying or exaggerating about [the progress] of a product release … and they’d see what the other person would do,” says Luna.
“The majority didn’t say anything about that wrongdoing if there’s a close bond. They generally found this happens because the employee feels the potential remorse or the consequences that the other person might have… They might worry that the other person will get caught, and it could injure their reputation or relationship with others in the company.”
While this scenario is an extreme example of how cultivating a ‘work family’ can lead to safety risks, unethical practices or cover-ups, it indicates why organisations should be mindful of encouraging too much loyalty to the organisation.
A burnt-out ‘work family’ can harm workplace culture
When you’re espousing a family culture, it can be harder for managers to step in and tell people to slow down or stop working late, says Luna.
“The company is looking for superstar people who are willing to go above and beyond in this family mentality,” says Luna.
“If you’re going with that family metaphor, and if you think of the CEO as the parent and employees as the children, an employee will usually listen to the parent. They’re the ones making the decisions.” – Joshua Luna, Founder, Mgmt
Loyalty can also give the employer an upper hand, as unreasonable demands or unrealistic expectations might not be called into question as readily.
“If you’re going with that family metaphor, and if you think of the CEO as the parent and employees as the children, an employee will usually listen to the parent. They’re the ones making the decisions,” says Luna.
“If you have this mentality that the CEO will tell us what to do, and how to think and act, it can potentially stifle creativity or new perspectives from employees.” [Read HRM’s recent article on authority bias]
It’s also hard to give frank and constructive feedback in a professional context without the employee taking it personally, he says. So the manager might be inclined to steer away from tough conversations.
The boss might shortcut a formal feedback process by offhandedly mentioning that the employee needs to pull their socks up, whereas they should be sitting the person down, and giving specific and targeted feedback, such as ‘This project did not go well because of X, I need you to fix this by Y,’ says Luna.
The first method is more informal and friendly, whereas the second is a clear performance conversation, which might be necessary when an employee needs to lift their game.
The way forward for workplace culture
Instead of branding your company as a family, try tapping into the values that characterise your company.
Luna gravitates towards the word ‘team’ – a group of individuals with a common end goal.
“Every high-performing team, the best companies in the world, the best leaders, all operate under one principle and that’s understanding. Can we understand each other’s strengths? Can we understand everybody’s weaknesses? Can we understand how those pieces fit together in order for us to reach the end goal?”
A close workplace culture that focuses on shared values and purpose should be articulated, and reflected in job advertisements, too.
“I immediately cringe when I see a [job] posting that says ‘We are a family company’. It provides no value. Job seekers now, especially during the ‘great reshuffle’, are trying to find something that will allow them to grow in their career,” says Luna.
“The words ‘family culture’ are promoting very basic ideologies of trust, communication and relationships, which are not unique to any one company. I recommend avoiding that neutral, standard verbiage.”
Instead, he says employers should use language that will “excite a potential job seeker”.
“It’s a matter of [demonstrating], ‘How can employees best represent their company and what it has to offer?’ My recommendation is to always highlight specifics. Be as crystal clear as possible, so a candidate can walk away knowing, ‘If I join your company in this role, I know what my expectations are and what will make me successful. I know what I’m going to be working on and how this will help me in my career growth.
“One of the easiest ways to do this is to be mission-driven. Sharing how employees have interpreted a vision statement within their own internal values is very valuable.”
Roblox, a global company that enables people to design and create video games, has taken an innovative and employee-centric approach to branding its company, he says.
“There are testimonials from current employees about joining the company and what the company means to them, and the level of inclusion and belonging. Messages like that really resonate because they’re not standard ones saying ‘We’re a family, and we all get together to socialise.’”
Example of a Roblox employee testimony.
There are no culture shortcuts
Leaders need to put in the hard yards to cultivate a close workplace culture, and labelling a company a ‘family’ is unlikely to achieve this, says Luna.
“When you’re trying to create a tight-knit culture and you shortcut it through the word ‘family’, it’s assuming that the trust and relationships already exist.
“If a manager doesn’t have a strong relationship with an employee, and they go into the conversation assuming it’s already there, they’ll usually run into issues. The employee might not tell them the full story and performance or engagement might dip.”
When a close friendship does develop in the workplace, particularly when it’s between a manager and their employee, Luna’s advice is to establish clear personal/professional boundaries.
“You can always have conversations where you start by saying, ‘Hey, I’m saying this with my friend hat on,’ or ‘I’m a manager in this situation and it’s time to take a step back and look at why this project is falling behind.’
“That takes a high level of emotional maturity and awareness. Individuals should be conscious of what their role is in a situation, and think about how to bring their professional hat to the fore.”
Building a strong team doesn’t mean everyone needs to feel like a ‘work family’. Learn how to build a positive team culture through AHRI’s short course, Creating High Performance Teams. Book in for the next course on 17 March.