“But they are like family to me!”
You hear this phrase or something like it when people speak about their work relationships. Hell, I’ve been guilty of saying it in one form or another. It is sorta sad to think about it, but we often spend more time in the company of our colleagues than we do with our core nuclear family.
But is it really like that, are we really family?
Would we want to be family?
So we’re all one big happy family! Now what?
Like the saying goes you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. The implied premise is that your family has to claim you. Thus, if we use the family paradigm, it hurts all the more when you have to, for professional reasons, reject an employee.
I think the best attitude to take with your employees is the same you might take if they were guest in your home. Be their host. (I don’t mean in a parasite/host relationship sorta way, I know some of you were thinking it.)
If we aren’t family, what are we?
It is kinda ironic that we often treat people in our families worse than strangers. We know them better, so we know how to hurt them more deeply. Afterward, you have to forgive and forget – We’re family!
That type of dynamic cannot work in a professional setting. The words “family” and “familiar” share the Latin roots from the word “familiaris” (domestic), but too familiar in the workplace might land you in civil court for any number of reasons.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, leadership is a social relationship, a construct. Family is a blood relationship that we are genetically hard-wired to defend or justify. In the eyes of the law families have more obligations to each other. These obligations just don’t work in leadership situations.
Leadership is a confluence of two social roles.
- The follower surrenders to some authority.
- The leader fills the vacuum and assumes authority over a follower.
What is the alternative?
I have seen professional relationships that I would describe as fatherly or matriarchal or weirdly incestuous that, by definition, creates a barrier for others. The in-group/out-group feeling can lead to jealously or genuinely prejudiced on the part of the would-be mentor.
I think the best approach is to use another social construct as a simple guideline to boost a healthy organizational culture. I suggest that you treat employees under the same obligations you would as a really good host of a great house party.
Everyone has their role to play, their social obligations to meet and no one has any claim to special family ties that can be the sources of unending drama.
My Host Rules for Leadership:
- Only invite people you trust and know. You have the obligation to properly vet the people you bring into your corporate home. You vet them for skills, safety, and to hope their personality contributes to a positive workplace.
- Be prepared for their arrival. From experience, there is nothing worse than the lukewarm reception of coming to an office where you are not expected. I once started a new job and the sales director was uninformed that I was even hired. They hastily found me a desk, but it took the company three weeks to install a computer terminal.
- Make them feel welcome. Introduce them around. Include them as quickly as possible. The worse thing any new employee should experience is the unnecessary need to prove themselves to other employees. My first rule is that I treat everyone as a competent adult until proven wrong. There is an obvious caveat related to experience; they are judged in accordance with their experience and knowledge.
- Welfare. The employees must feel there is no expense spared in making the office safe and hygienic. Things like safety equipment, clean bathrooms and common areas, physical security, and a break area are a few items that come to mind.
- Honest, but not rude. You have to communicate clearly to everyone through multiple channels. It is important to communicate expectations and set house rules (or boundaries) through policies, SOPs, and the occasional verbal reminder.
- Never act as if they are an inconvenience. When employees sense you don’t want to listen, they will stop communicating out of either frustration or fear. You don’t want to be the last to know “XX”; especially when “XX” is about to kick you in the ass.
- Treat them fairly. There is certainly some room to screw this up, so you may have to be a little proactive and anticipate a little empathy. But, I generally treat people in the way I expect to be treated.
- When they leave, wish them well and hope to see them again. I have witnessed so many ridiculous and petty responses to people who quit. I have seen people give proper notice to their supervisor, then the supervisor called HR to report that the employee had been terminated before the, now former, employee had walked to the HR office. The employee is embarrassed as they are escorted out of the building and there is no transition period to properly off load work and tidy up loose ends.
- Be prepared to confront a guest who has outstayed their welcome. As I mentioned before, this is a social contract. Just as the host has a role to play, so does the “guest”. In your role as host/boss, you have an obligation to all guests. When one no longer meets their obligations, ask them to leave the party. There is no reason to allow any one guest to ruin it for everyone else. The party must go on!
Just a quick follow-on remark. Asking someone to leave does not have to be huge confrontation. You can frame the departure as a mutually decided, professional departure. If there is no opportunity for promotion or growth, then an honest discussion should include the possibility of leaving. I have personally called and found jobs for employees who felt stagnant in their work. Because the relationship with them was not broken, I could honestly vouch for their integrity and value. The good will from the gesture often returned in another form.
Being a leader is hard because in it not always easy to set the boundaries of your emotional commitment. All good leaders allow an emotional component to their work because it is necessary to build empathy and trust with your people. But, when you make it family, the hooks can get too deep and the entanglement too complicated. When you end up having to fire someone, then the fantasy of “a big, happy family” becomes thin. The perceived advantage of family unity seems pretty hollow. The feelings change from family to dysfunctional family.
I know a lot of leaders who treat their real family like crap. It may be acceptable for a father to yell at his family, but I would not accept that behavior from my boss; I don’t think anyone should. For them to say “You’re like family to me” is really not a compliment.
I think you can really see this dynamic at its worse in family owned businesses. They really are family and it is impossible to decouple business from family. Family businesses often last only a generation.
The key concept I want to convey is that as a host you want to create a warm, welcome environment where people want to be. The parallel leadership concept is to create a healthy organizational culture where people genuinely enjoy coming to work.
As a host, you have the emotional distance and social obligation to do what is best for everyone.
So, be a good host. All everyone wants is a fair treatment and feeling of being welcome either at a party or on the job.
- Family businesses comprise 90 percent of all business enterprises in North America, and 62% of total U.S. employment. (Small Business Administration 2011)
- Only 30% of family businesses in America will be passing the reigns to the next generation, even though close to 70% would like to keep their business in the family. (peakfamilybusiness.com 2011)
- By the third generation, only 12% of family businesses in the US are typically still viable. (peakfamilybusiness.com 2011)
- By the fourth generation and beyond, only 3% of family businesses continue to exist. (peakfamilybusiness.com 2011)
- 47% of the companies surveyed had no succession plans in place. (peakfamilybusiness.com 2011)
- By 2050, virtually all closely held and family owned businesses will lose their primary owner to death or retirement. Approximately $10.4 trillion of net worth will be transferred by the year 2040, with $4.8 trillion in the next 20 years. (Robert Avery, Cornell University, “The Ten Trillion Dollar Question: A Philanthropic Gameplan”)
- Of CEOs due to retire within 5 years, 55% have not yet chosen their replacement. (Arthur Anderson/Mass Mutual, 2003)
About Ken Wrede