Why Your Colleagues Cannot Be Your Family

There has been a modern movement in talking about our workplace as if they were “family”. It’s the idea that the way we relate to our co-workers should be the same way we relate to our family. It’s a term that’s thrown around when companies are talking about workplace culture. It has garnered some popularity in recent years, and I would like to add my thoughts into the mix.

I like the intent of the movement. I see this as a reaction from the slave-like corporate culture of yesteryear – Employees being treated as disposable meat bags to serve the all-encompassing mission of the company. Any step in improving the treatment of employees is considered a win for society, a win for employees, and a win for me.

Nonetheless, in the quick embrace of this new work ethos. I suspect that we have not thought about the implications of this movement.

The Importance Of Culture

Working culture plays a big role in a company. Everybody conforms to the working culture whether they’re conscious of it or not. From the largest subsidiaries, to the niche departments, and to the lowliest of employees. The way the company interacts internally, regardless of scope, is informed by working culture.

Now, there are numerous ways to cover the impacts of culture on a company. Nonetheless, I shall summarize all the relevant literature in the following statement. A better working culture is preferable in all circumstances.

A better working culture is preferable in all circumstances

Joel Loh

One of the quick fixes to improve culture is playing the “family” card. I don’t blame them. It’s a great looking card.

We all understand what it means to be tight-knit as a family. The term conveys a sense of home, a sense of belonging, and a sense of acceptance. But a great looking card doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right card to play.

The 2 Different Kinds of Relationship

To begin this discussion, we need to characterize the 2 kinds of relationship. The working relationship that occurs in the workplace, and the familial relationship that occurs amongst family members or friends even. These characteristics that I propose are no means exhaustive or perfect, but I think they are sufficient and uncontroversial.

Familial Relationships
Taken by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

When it comes to familial relationships, the primary enjoyment is derived from the person rather than their contribution. The joy is centered on the appreciation of a person’s personality, traits, and desire. Have you ever been friends with somebody that you didn’t like? I highly doubt so.

The pleasure of the relationship is found in delighting in the person for being themselves. What you produce externally is secondary in the context of the familial relationship.

It is not about what you do, but who you are.

Working Relationships
Taken by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Whereas, when it comes to working relationships, the primary bond stem from what you create. It’s about the contribution and not the person. The measurable output that you produce, the quality of the work you create, and the compensation you get. These things form the building block of the working relationship.

The greater the quality the work you produce, the more delighted the company is. The more the company compensates, the more delighted you will be.

It’s not about who you are, but what you do.

Now to clarify, both kind of relationships might exhibit traits from the other. I enjoy it when my brother does things for me, and when I have great conversations with my colleagues.

The issue lies when a company invokes and prioritizes the familial relationship in the context of a working relationship, AKA Becoming “family”. I believe that the switch of focus is both disadvantageous to the employee and employer.

The Consequences

To begin with, it becomes a delicate balancing act for everyone.

Originally, value is the main driver. However, once interpersonal bonds is placed on a higher pedestal, it becomes a mess. For the employer, conversations about employee’s performance is now made tougher. It’s not so easy to point out flaws in someone without damaging the interpersonal relationship. Dealing with an under performing colleague becomes exceedingly difficult.  

Furthermore, people can abuse this “family” mentality. The Employer justifies its poor compensation knowing that it can play the “We are family” trump card. The targeted employee is forced to go with it. After all, to criticize the company is to criticize “family”.

The reverse could be true.

The employee play politics knowing that because of “family” he can compensate bad work with protection from high places. Resulting in politics being awarded instead of actual value creation. In trying to create a more open environment by using “family”, it has instead become habitat for abuses.

Lastly, the fundamental nature of the organization is brought under question. A main pillar of any business is to provide the greatest value. Fullstop. The moment a company begins to compromise that, they begin to lose its edge.

What I’m Not Saying

By no means, I’m advocating for a return to a bad working culture. God forbid. I’ll advocate for a positive work culture. But, let’s be wise in discerning what a good working culture is.

Here’s my simple take. I would argue that a great company culture is where the environment is conducive for employees to create maximum value. The company does all in their power to encourage, support and compensate their employees.

The secondary bond is then the interpersonal relationship between the company. The camaraderie with your colleagues, the banter at the coffee table. Those things exist, but it is not a replacement for the value transaction that occurs.

I believe in healthy workplace relationships. Colleagues that challenge you to grow, bring out the best in you, and spur you on to greater heights. When that is in place, I believe the interpersonal bonds will grow. In choosing to focus on family, we might lose it. In choosing to focus on excellence, we then might find it.

In choosing to focus on family, we might lose it. In choosing to focus on excellence, we then might find it.

My single concise statement

Here we are for my second post, I’ve been brewing with this thoughts for quite some time. I think that they are semi-controversial.

Nonetheless, what do you think? Do you think we should treat our workplace as “family”?

4 thoughts on “Why Your Colleagues Cannot Be Your Family

  1. Jocelyn

    Interesting in Japan I learnt that post war companies treated and emphasized the “family bond” as a reason to serve sacrificially and give your whole life to one company. Quitting the company is like quitting on your family. So this has led to many real family and societal problems as a consequence to workers especially men, giving their entire lives to companies at the expense of their real families and as a result, lose real familial relationships that can never be replaced by companies they worked for.

  2. Roland

    Lovely read, just some thoughts to bounce back to you.

    Where would the church be in terms of am organisation or family?

    Where would the leaders of the church be (not the people employed by the church, more of the deacons and such) on this definition, family or organization?

    I think it’s a great topic to dialog about, if you want please feel free to reach out.

  3. Saba

    This was such a lovely and interesting read, Joel.
    I agree with your thoughts and your perspective on this, and I do believe that we should be wise in discerning what behavior we need to have at work. I loved how you explained your points and the friendly defense you took on your thoughts!

    This was great!

  4. Pingback: Coffee Convo: Desperate Times, Desperate Measures - Joel's Blog

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