Picture this: You’re on LinkedIn scrolling for a prospective job. Finding one offer that piques your interest, you click into it to read the description.
“We are like a family here,” it reads.
If you choose to exit the link and peruse more choices, congratulations, you might have potentially avoided a red flag.
You may hear the older generation family members speak with an air of pride that they have dedicated over 30 to 50 years of their lives in the same company.
They would scoff and click their tongues at the younger job seekers who would demand higher levels of welfare and a good work-life balance, claiming that they are much weaker than their generation.
“My work is like my family, we don’t ask these kinds of things from family,” they would say.
Are you able to sense why this is not the healthiest mindset?
“Family” Culture at Work can be Toxic
We already spend a significant amount, one-third, in fact, of our day at work. Taking away our time used to sleep (or to lie in bed watching Netflix until 3AM, we don’t judge), that is almost the same amount of time you get to spend with your familial circle.
Being a social species, it is natural – and almost unavoidable – that we forge bonds with the people we meet at work.
In order for employers to feel “more at home” at work, companies may opt to invest in more “surface-level” aspects instead of more practical benefits such as higher wages or health insurance.
For instance, you may see offices with foosball tables, sleeping pods, gaming systems and fully stocked pantries. Sounds like a nice home away from home with your second family, right?
Our co-workers guide us through our career and help us grow. They can also provide us with emotional support and friendship in a stressful environment. As such, we might also begin to build relationships with them that mirror that of siblings, parents, or cousins at home.
It sounds wholesome when we put it like this, but there is a darker side to it.
Research suggests that adopting the family metaphor in business fosters a positive, motivating culture, akin to brothers and sisters. This encourages emotional attachment to the organization.
At the same time, it may lead to employees feeling obliged to share every and any information asked of them by their superiors, whom they now view as mothers and fathers, fearing strain in the familial bond.
The problem gets worse in a virtual or hybrid work setting, especially for teams unaccustomed to remote work.
Managers may struggle to trust remote employees, suspecting that they are taking the time to slack off during work hours. As a result, they resort to micromanagement tactics like tracking start and stop times.
In cultures valuing work output over outcomes, employers may seek irrelevant employee information, or start to be overly kaypoh like helicopter parents, as we call it.
Of course, in a society that respects, well, respecting our superiors like they are our parents, these employees may feel obligated to share every little happenings in their lives in order to justify themselves. That is neither normal nor healthy.
“Family” Work Cultures Expect More for Less
If you heard that your family member is in trouble, you may drop everything to help out without even thinking twice.
If this mindset is adopted into the work setting, your friendship and loyalty to your coworkers can be misinterpreted as an obligation to exceed expectations and do whatever it takes to accomplish tasks.
In family-oriented cultures, employees proactively offer assistance and volunteer help in an act of genuine selflessness, as highlighted in Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones’ book, The Character of a Corporation.
Here’s the catch: Numerous instances and studies indicate that excessively loyal individuals may engage in unethical behaviours such as purposefully concealing information for their company’s (family’s?) best interest.
They are also more likely to be exploited by their employers, taking on tasks unrelated to their given job scope and working excessive hours.
After all, in a world where big companies like Lazada and Amazon can let go of thousands of employees on a whim, workers would do whatever it takes to please their employees in order to keep their rice bowls.
Operating under this mindset, employees inevitably experience burnout, leading to declining performance and productivity.
Ignoring this issue, employers risk cultivating a culture of increased employee turnover and diminished productivity, ultimately impacting the organization’s bottom line.
How Do We Overcome Toxic Work Culture?
Honestly, this one is more for the employers than employees: Leadership development trainer Joshua A. Luna claims that instead of promoting a “family” mentality, think of it as a sports team or a tribe instead.
Similar to how a sports team has to come together and intricately strategize their gameplans together in order to win, high performance in the workplace involves focusing on purpose, aligning individual and team efforts with the company’s objectives, and delivering quality work consistently.
When building teams and onboarding new employees, it’s crucial to emphasize clarity and transparency regarding performance expectations.
Dissociating the notion of “family” from discussions about high performance and purpose helps maintain professional boundaries and clarity.
During the onboarding process, clearly define work expectations and establish boundaries between work and personal life.
Instead of demanding to know what your employees are doing at any given moment, you can regularly schedule check-ins and one-on-one meetings to assess performance, address concerns, and maintain work-life balance.
In short, managers should shift focus from a family-centric culture to emphasizing a shared purpose. Clearly defining and communicating the company’s purpose fosters loyalty and engagement, aligning employees’ goals with organizational objectives.
Setting clear boundaries regarding work hours and promoting vacation time encourages self-advocacy and work-life balance.
Employers can lead by example, taking breaks to spend time on hobbies and interests outside of work. Employees, in turn, would feel encouraged and comfortable to do the same for themselves when necessary.
During crunch time when things in the office get too overwhelming, it is crucial for companies to provide support options and reassess workload priorities, and make it clear to employees what steps they can take to get back on track.
Acknowledge the transient nature of the employee-employer relationship and support employees’ growth, whether within or outside the organization.
At the End of the Day, Your Relationship is Transactional
As harsh as it sounds, and no matter how close-knit a team of employees can be, it’s essential to recognize that the employee-employer relationship is only transactional, and it’s completely normal for employees to move on from a company when better opportunities arise.
Organizations evolve, and employees may outgrow their roles or seek new experiences elsewhere.
It’s crucial to be transparent about this reality from the outset, respecting employees’ decisions to leave and acknowledging their contributions at the end of the day.
Rather than feeling bound by familial ties, prioritize growth and support employees in finding suitable positions, either within the company or elsewhere.
By promoting these practices, organizations can break the cycle and foster a culture of professionalism and growth, moving away from the notion of a “family” workplace.
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