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Why ‘one big family’ is one big red flag

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What does family mean to you? What does it mean to your colleagues? Your potential recruits? For such an often-used term, family can be a divisive word. For some it can mean a supportive, safe environment in which they can flourish. However, for others it can mean dysfunction, disappointment, feuds, falling out or worse.

So why are so many organisations so obsessed with recreating family at work?

From Renotkil to Greggs, Age UK to Pets at Home, the phrase ‘one big family’ is sprinkled liberally across recruitment adverts and value statements.

A common cultural descriptor, it has become the go-to for describing a positive, close-knit culture. However, should family really be what organisations aim for? Or should leaders be focused more on championing differences rather than recreating blood ties?


Must-haves of a positive company culture:

Creating a sense of belonging at work

The importance of accountability

How to cultivate inclusive language in the workplace


Where does close-knit give way to closed-mindedness?

Families are often closed cliques, difficult to break into, and potentially wary of difference or change.

For example, a family-minded firm where everyone was a golfer was sued by a woman who didn’t golf and who had withdrawn from the interview process. She claimed indirect sex discrimination and won – she claimed the culture was male dominated and pointed to the fact that there are more male golfers than female. The organisation itself was shocked at the outcome – ‘but we are just one big family’ they said.

Family suggests that you are not looking for a disruptor, the wayward child. But can you innovate as a business if you don’t allow the potential for positive disruptors?

Who plays parent?

In this family, who is in control? And do you really want your leaders to be viewed as parents? Because surely that means that your team members are then relegated to being the children?

The idea of paternalistic leadership is nothing new, but is one that in many senses demands obedience. There is a difference between benevolent paternalism and autocratic paternalism, but this is a fine line and how many leaders understand how to strike the balance?

“We will look after and support you" often becomes "everyone must do as I say and agree with my decisions". Paternalism can take many forms in leadership, but almost always it either implicitly or explicitly demands devotion to hierarchy and unquestioned loyalty. In the era of issues such as #MeToo this can be extremely damaging.

Quite simply, any parent-child dynamics have little to offer at work

Canadian psychologist, Eric Berne posited the idea that in relationships we adopt one of three ego states: parent, child or adult. The parent is a position of authority; sometimes nurturing if overcautious, often punishing and authoritarian.

As a child we are driven by feelings and reaction. This can be a positive place of creativity but too often takes the stamping foot and pouting approach.

As an adult we can act based on thought, experience and reason. It is about rationally processing information and communicating clearly.

While there are positive and negative aspects of all three states, issues arise in the workplace when the authoritarian parent and foot-stamping child dynamic forms the basis of manager-employee relationships, as is too often the case. Another common scenario is when the overly nurturing parent creates child-like dependency and a belief that someone else will always ‘fix’ the problem or issue. 

In cultures of accountability, the adult must prevail. While simply changing the words we use about work won’t result in instant shifts in accountability, it goes a long way in setting the tone of an organisation.

Groupthink, cliques and black sheep

It’s fair to say that not all families are models of positive functionality and fairness. Families often operate around power positions, where not all are equal and difference isn’t always celebrated.

In many families non-conformity is punished by exclusion, bullying or even exile. In the workplace, such behaviour is not only unacceptable, but can land employers in very hot water.

Other social structures based on the notion of family suffer the same issue. Think about fraternities and sororities in the US. Often involving ritualistic inductions, required to prove your credentials to be in the ‘family’. The idea of basing positive working cultures on such outdated ideas sounds somewhat lazy.

HR leaders must encourage their organisations to build their own model and adopt language that unites on realistic, shared values, not idealistic fantasies.

And if you choose a culture of accountability, you can’t go too far wrong. An accountable workplace is one where everyone feels a sense of ownership and responsibility for both themselves, others and the working environment.

An adult culture, where people are happy to be held to account for what they do or don’t do provides the foundation for great working relationships and productivity. Forward thinking organisations increasingly look to employ adults who are confident and comfortable to behave as adults rather than wait for instruction – or discipline. And that requires leaders and managers to choose to lead and manage in an adult way, rather than by reverting to traditional parent roles.

While there is nothing inherently wrong in seeking to forge strong relationships between employer and employee, and between colleagues, let’s be honest about the relationship between an employer and an employee. It’s not family, it shouldn't be and we certainly shouldn’t base progressive, innovative cultures on such a murky model of people management.  

Helen Jamieson is founder and MD at Jaluch HR