David’s Leadership Articles

Thinking they’re a family doesn’t motivate your team.

You’ve probably heard leaders say it and you might have even said it yourself when you were hoping to motivate your team.

“I treat my team like family” or “We’re one big family here at XYZ Corp.”

It feels like a nice thing to say. You want them to know you care about them as people; that everyone cares about each other; and we may fight at times, but we always come back together.

We are all about genuine caring and connection. Winning Well leaders focus on both results and relationships.

However, there are three problems with comparing your team or company to a family and they can badly undermine your leadership and your team’s effectiveness.

1. You don’t know what “family” means.

Each team member will interpret “family” differently depending on their past. For some, the definition of family is “that safe place where you are always accepted no matter how badly you’ve screwed up.”

For another team member, the family might mean a dysfunctional, tense situation that they left as soon as they could.

For another team member, family means they just wait for their parent to tell them what to do and they don’t have to think for themselves.

As soon as you use a word like “family” you’ve lost a shared, mutually understood set of expectations about what success looks like.

2. You’re not a family.

When it comes to motivating your team, one of the biggest problems “family” language creates is the obvious one: you’re not a family. One big difference that I’ve seen create problems for many businesses is the idea that you can’t fire a brother or sister for poor performance.

I’ve listened to sad employees receive a letter of separation and tearfully tell their manager, “But we’re supposed to be a family. This isn’t right.” And they believe it, and they’ve been allowed to believe it, because the manager so frequently spoke in terms of family.

Teams exist to achieve a shared goal, whether it’s to serve your customer, create change in the world, or solve a significant problem. When your behavior doesn’t align with that goal, you can and should be removed from the team. Families may or may not share a common goal, and rarely does poor behavior get you removed from a family.

3. You make growth difficult.

Small teams and businesses will often speak of themselves as a family. It’s natural–the constant time spent with your team, high pressure, the informal meetings, and lack of structure that often come with small organizations can feel very family-like.

However, this mindset makes it very challenging to motivate your team when you want to grow. Team members who enjoyed the casual environment and lack of structure start to complain when you introduce role clarity, define MITs, and increase accountability.

This is where you hear things like, “We used to be a family, but now we’re becoming so…corporate!” Corporate is said as if it were a poisonous snake (and, to be fair, if their experience of corporate has been to be treated like a number, not a person, it may have been poisonous.)

How to Motivate Your Team When They Talk About Family

When you hear your team talking about being a family (or if you’ve used this language yourself), I invite you to Ditch the Diaper Drama with your team and have a straightforward conversation. You might start with:

“I’ve heard us talk about being a family and I’ve said it as well. I want to talk about that. Family can mean different things to different people and I’d like for us to make sure we are on the same page and understand one another.”

In this conversation, you want to reinforce that you are a team (or organization) focused on both results and relationships. Clarify the MITs and What Success Looks Like. You might use the Expectations Matrix to facilitate a conversation and identify gaps in expectations.

Clarify your culture (How people like us act) with regard to how you will treat one another with respect, compassion, and hold one another accountable. If growth is in your future, talk about how it will require more role clarity and more structure, and how treating one another with respect, compassion, and holding each other accountable should never change.

Your Turn

Remember that “family” can mean something very different from what you intend and create bad misunderstandings for your team. To motivate your team, take the time to clarify shared expectations about your purpose and the ways in which you will respect and care for one another.

We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and share your thoughts about what it means for a business team to be “like family.”

leadership development Karin Hurt and David Dye

David Dye helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

32 Comments

  1. Jennifer Seyler

    This is a great article! I can see both sides but very much relate to team members, who think they are family, get upset if areas of improvement are discussed.

    • David Dye

      Jennifer, thank you – I’m glad to hear it was helpful. Yes – clarifying expectations and relationships is so important for healthy teams!

  2. Henry

    So no more birthday cakes?

    • David Dye

      Party on Henry – if celebrating birthdays is part of your team culture, go for it. Just keep that focus on relationships in balance with a focus on results.

  3. Sujin

    Glad I read this. Great article. I have to keep this in mind and try not to say the word “family” in the work environment.

    • David Dye

      Thank you Sujin – happy to hear it was helpful. It’s one of those words that causes great confusion despite our best intentions.

  4. Karen Eadon

    I can relate to this subject–its very true. However, I don’t know what MIT stands for.

  5. Chreyl

    Everything you mentioned is 100% true. I plan to make the change in my leadership effective immediately.

    • David Dye

      Chreyl – so glad it was helpful for you!

  6. Shirley

    Great article.. i am a leader that calls my organization a family..will be re-programming this in the near future du tothe insight you have given
    Thank you

    • David Dye

      You’re very welcome, Shirley.

  7. Adrien Neely

    Thanks! You’ve helped me understand why our non-profit was in such a mess when I was asked to assume leadership role.

    • David Dye

      Adrien, you’re certainly not alone. I’ve spent many years in the nonprofit industry and the desire to be good to people frequently causes this confusion. Thanks for your leadership!

  8. Andy Bolante

    This was a great article as there definitely a BIG difference between family and team.

    • David Dye

      Thanks, Andy – there certainly is!

  9. Robert Goulding

    This is a spot on article, and I think Mr. Bolante’s comment sums it up very well. I will be sharing this.

    • David Dye

      Appreciate it, Robert!

  10. Nebu John

    Hi David,

    Very useful and informative article. Well said fact. Truly appreciated.
    Nebu

    • David Dye

      Glad to hear it Nebu – thank you.

  11. Glen A Plumley

    I’ve felt this way for years. Thank you for publishing this insight.

    • David Dye

      You’re very welcome, Glen.

  12. Sharon

    This is so true. At one small university everyone was referred to as part of the ram family (or ramily). It created a cult like obsession and allowed people to look the other way when questionable behavior was seen or difficult questions were asked. You didn’t “go against the family” and when someone did, obviously they were troublemakers. The emperor had no clothes because the emperor could do no wrong… or in many employees eyes, he was taking care of his “ramily” so he can’t have any other motives.

    • David Dye

      Sharon, thanks for sharing this example – it illustrates the varied meaning of “family” and the negative behaviors that can come with so many of those interpretations.

  13. Tommy

    I understand the concept of the family reference. It’s motivation, one for all and all for one. Equity and opportunity just like any other member of the family. However leadership should they choose this method of bringing people in should be transparent in their intent and expectations of staff. You still gotta do your job. Be clear what is meant from the beginning . Roles we play expectations we have are clear then we are all “one big happy family”. So to speak. Mr. Dye thank you for this thought provoking opinion. I agree with you, but also understand where family may be referenced.

    • David Dye

      Tommy, you’re welcome, and thank you for adding to the conversation.

      You’ve shared another great example of how family can be interpreted in different ways: “one for all and all for one” or “one big happy” or something else entirely. You’re spot on about the leadership need for clarity from the beginning.

      Thanks again!

  14. Jen

    Thanks for sharing! If this family perspective has been in place within a team for years and new team members are not promoting the “family” perspective, how does one reverse the “family” embrace without sounding cold hearted and not empathetic?

    • David Dye

      Hi Jen,

      This is an important question you ask. Part of the challenge is that when people use the word ‘family’ it means different things…so they might be promoting their version of ‘family’ which is different from others’ versions. This is why I recommend leaders avoid using the term and instead rely on clear expectations (eg: about how the team will treat one another, achieve results, solve problems, and resolve conflicts.)

      To start this conversation without sounding cold-hearted or lacking empathy, the leader can acknowledge the challenges that come with using “family” and clarify her concern for both results and relationships.

      eg: “I’ve heard us talk about being a family and I’ve said it as well. I want to talk about that. Family can mean different things to different people – for some people family means warm and caring, for others it means you never leave, and for others, it means cold and demanding. We want to be a team where we are invested in one another’s success, where we hold ourselves accountable for results, and we celebrate together, and we hold one another accountable for keeping our commitments to each other.”

  15. Nancy

    Great article! I know the company I work for says we are family quite often. I have said it myself. It makes us feel good. But this article makes good sense on why we should move away from that mindset.

    • David Dye

      Thanks Nancy – feeling good about ourselves is great. As leaders we want everyone feeling good about the team’s accomplishments and about how the team interacts, supports one another, and holds one another accountable. (And not feeling good when these things aren’t happening.)

  16. Beverly

    Thank you for sharing this. It is certainly an eye-opener.

    • David Dye

      My pleasure Beverly – I’m glad it is helpful.

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