Beware of Family in the Workplace.


Underlying beliefs can make or break a team’s culture.

If you want to prevent your team’s culture from deteriorating in a hurry, take a critical look at the following: in your environment, do you tend to say that “we are like a family here?”.

“We’re like a family” is a sentence I often hear when I facilitate training or consult to organizations that suffer from widespread incivility or even harassment. At the heart of this belief lies the notion that the closeness and caring that characterize family life allow members of the ‘workplace family’ to cross colleagues’ personal boundaries without being hurtful or inappropriate.

Well, here’s a thought: families are deeply flawed entities. They are not idyllic structures imbued with nothing but love and support. In real life, families can cause their members intense pain. And in those work environments that are fraught with incivility (or worse), people use the family analogy as window dressing that permits them to treat each other in destructive ways. The ‘family’ notion sanctions questionable behaviour and stops accountability at the door, in the same way that the phrase “boys will be boys” has enabled schoolyard bullying.


Discussion Questions:

In your team, consider any or all of the following questions:

  1. In what circumstances or situations do we tend to refer to our team or organizational culture as ‘a family’?
  2. List all the situations where this term is used, either implicitly or explicitly. (For example, do you use it to describe the support you provide to each other during difficult times? Or perhaps you use it when you give each other feedback?)
  3. When we think of our culture as a family, what behaviours, feelings, dynamics or other factors do we ignore or disregard?
  4. When we think of our culture as a family, what positive, constructive or helpful things are we able to do (individually and as a team)?
  5. What positive, constructive or helpful things are we unable to do when we view ourselves as a family?
  6. When we think of our culture as a family, what negative, unproductive or even destructive things do we do or say (individually or as a team) that we would not otherwise be doing or saying?
  7. As a team, which elements of the ‘family’ notion do we want to foster and maintain? Which do we want to leave behind?
  8. What three key actions do we need to take (individually and as a team) over the next two months in order to implement our answer to question #5 above?

For more ideas on creating respectful workplaces or to discuss your training needs, please contact us – we’d love to hear from you.

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