Reflect Tips – Using ‘family’ to describe your culture – Five reasons you should avoid it

Many organisations describe their culture as a “family”. But in my view, this can have serious undertones of toxicity, and can (and should) be a massive red flag for employees.

Whilst there are businesses doing this somewhat innocently, there are others that know what they are doing, and using this word to make themselves sound like a welcoming place to work. But unfortunately, the reality is usually something very different.

In this Tuesday tips episode I give my five reasons why businesses should avoid referring to their culture as a “family” at all costs, including:

  • It suggests the business has a culture of overworking
  • It can blur the lines of people’s personal and professional lives. 
  • It suggests work must be used for a social crux
  • It suggests a lack of leadership
  • And it indicates that performance doesn’t matter

See a full transcript of the video below:

“We’re like a family”.

Excuse me a second while I go grab a bucket.

The word ‘family’ is often used to describe an organisation’s culture, and I won’t lie. It kind of makes me feel a bit sick.

To be honest, I think some businesses that do it genuinely don’t understand what they are stating or its implications. If you think this is you, I’m here to try and convince you to stop.

Of course, there are those that do know what they’re saying, and that’s a different matter entirely. 

Hi, I’m Sean Butcher and I am a culture consultant and Founder of Reflect Consultancy.

I work predominantly with digital agencies and other small businesses on helping them create cultures that bring out the best out of their people.  

So whether the word ‘family’ already gives you the ick, or you’re yet to be convinced why it’s a bad thing, here’s my five reasons why you should avoid using ‘family’ to describe your culture.

The first is it suggests the business has a culture of overworking.

To me, purposely overworking people, or just turning a blind eye to people overworking is one of THE most toxic traits you can get in a business. 

It kind of makes me think of something like the Mitchells from Eastenders to be honest.

But suggesting you’ll do absolutely anything for each other fails to recognise that, for most people, work is just one element of their life. 

Not to mention they probably have an ACTUAL family at home. 

Sure, it can be incredibly satisfying when a team all pulls together to get something done. But if it gets to the point where you’re celebrating overwork, or work becoming that person’s identity in the form of them being part of some organisational ‘family’, then this suggests a seriously underlying toxicity in the culture. 

And this ties in with the second point, which is referring to your culture as a family blurs the lines of people’s personal and professional lives. 

Some people choose to make work their life. Fair enough. That’s up to them.

But it should never be an expectation of everyone in the business.

Burnout is rife at the moment – you can check out my video on reducing your risks of burning out here.

As such, organisations really need to be doing everything they can to ensure employees are able to clearly separate the various areas of their life, and find a healthy balance.

In fact, great cultures actively encourage people to take downtime and find hobbies and interests outside of work. This enables them to stay mentally healthy, fresh and engaged in the times they are working. 

For me, anything that suggests work should be your life, and that you need to demonstrate total loyalty to the cause, is a HUGE red flag. 

Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with hard work and loyalty to an organisation, if you’re not going to provide anything in return to your employees, then you’re on a steep downward slope. 

Tying in with this is the third issue here, which is the use of work as a social crux.

Look, I get it. Some of my closest connections have been made through work. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making friends with those that you work with.

I also completely think that businesses should be creating communities, and actually I would strongly encourage it. In fact, motivational psychologists Deci and Ryan state in their famous self-determination theory that ‘Relatedness’ i.e. the connection we have with other people, is one of three intrinsic motivators along with autonomy and competency.

But, it shouldn’t ever be presumed that employees should attend social events, or go for drinks with their colleagues after work hours. Social events are not the only way to build effective connections. And people certainly shouldn’t be judged negatively for choosing not to attend them, if that’s the decision they make.

People have other commitments. Some may just generally not enjoy socialising. Some don’t want to drink for personal reasons, or can’t because of religious reasons. 

So great if this is what you want from work. But don’t make those that don’t feel like they have to do this kind of thing to ‘fit in’. This causes favouritism, cliques and rifts within your business.

The fourth reason is it suggests a lack of leadership.

For me, if employees in the wider team are describing themselves as a family, it’s because that’s the main way they’re managing to cope through a bloody hard time. 

Likely, it suggests they’ve had to band together at a certain level because they aren’t getting what they need from above, and are therefore battling through the hard times together. Which in turn has brought them closer together. 

I.e. – a ‘family’.

But the other thing here is how it all feels like a bit of a power play. 

It’s one where leaders think that treating their employees like their kids is the way to run a business. 

Ultimately, this suggests that there’s a parent and child relationship going on. Where employees are expected to behave like the doting children all looking up to this one, all-powerful parent.

The contradiction here is that the same leaders will also likely have their favourites within the team. This is like saying, “I prefer this kid over that one. I’m going to give you all of the opportunities in life and I’m not fussed about what happens to the others”. 

Which in a cohesive family unit isn’t what’s meant to happen. 

And all of this usually results in a culture of fear and a lack of psychological safety. 

Running a business in a parent > child way only gets you so far, because people become so over-reliant on the leader, then become fearful of making a wrong move. The result? – Nobody takes accountability for anything, and there’s a distinct lack of psychological safety.

Which leads me very nicely onto the fifth and final point, which is it indicates that performance doesn’t matter.

Suggesting your business is a family also suggests that people can act or perform however they want, because ultimately, you’ll love them no matter what. 

I mean, that’s great and everything. But let’s not forget that businesses need to perform to survive. 

And yes, I’m saying this as someone that strongly believes in the power of nurturing and developing people.

But I also know that if you have a load of people in your business that aren’t meeting expectations, then you’re not going to have a business for very long.

And that can affect everyone, even your best performers. And they know it.

Businesses that refer to each other as a family are often those that don’t hold each other accountable. They let poor performance slide, or they clear up mistakes without giving people the proper, constructive feedback they need to develop.

But you have to do this, and you may have to make tough choices on certain people. 

For that reason there needs to be some sort of boundary in place in the employer <> employee relationship. Sure, you want to nurture, you want to coach and help them grow and become the best they can be.

But if they’re not developing, or not performing then you also have to know when to move on. And saying you’ll treat people like your family makes that a hell of a lot tougher, if not impossible. 

So that’s that, my five reasons why you should avoid using ‘family’ to describe your culture.

  • It suggests the business has a culture of overworking
  • It can blur the lines of people’s personal and professional lives. 
  • It suggests work must be used for a social crux
  • It suggests a lack of leadership
  • And it indicates that performance doesn’t matter

Let me know what you think in the comments. Do you agree? Do you think I’m talking BS? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Thanks for watching, and if you enjoyed this video please give it a like and subscribe to the channel, so you’re notified of my future tips and podcasts.

Cheers and see you very soon!

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