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Don’t Call Me Family- The Sneaky Toxic Phrase That Is Killing Company Culture

Blending this reality with familial language can have serious consequences for both the individual and the overall company culture.

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Apr 25, 2024
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Last updated on Apr 08, 2024

“We’re a family here!” 

“You’re part of the [company name] family now!”

We’ve all heard these exclaimed from a well-intentioned leader at a company, most likely during the interview process or even in the job posting itself. On the surface, this seems like a highly positive thing- this company has employees who truly care about each other, take care of each other, and have great camaraderie. But is that really the case? Over the last decade, there is a growing observation that companies that describe themselves as “family” have lower rates of work-life balance, employees that struggle with setting healthy boundaries, and more difficulty in holding each other accountable, which all leads to the destruction of a healthy, high performing work culture. 

The origins of viewing coworkers as family

While difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of referring to coworkers as family, this phrase reached significant popularity during the 2010s as millennials were starting to solidify their footing in the workplace. Millennials, as a generalization, have long been categorized as a generation wanting a sense of belonging and a real culture fit from their workplace. This led to the growth of well-known trendy workplace “perks,” like ping-pong tables, bean bags, and free coffee and snacks; but somewhere along the way, it also became common to hear workplace describe themselves as family. 

Consequences of company “family”

The double-edged sword of calling coworkers family is the undercurrent of bringing in dynamics that have traditionally stayed in actual families into the workplace, which can deeply affect the people of the organization. Family dynamics are extremely personal and individualized to each employee and it’s nearly impossible to understand what baggage they may or may not bring over to the workplace if they view the workplace within the same framework. In addition, there are consequences in the workplace that simply don’t exist in families, like terminations and layoffs or raises and promotions. Blending this reality with familial language can have serious consequences for both the individual and the overall company culture.

Blurring Boundaries 

When we start to blur the realms of work and personal life, it can lead to: 

  • Unrealistic Expectations: Family often requires emotional support and sacrifice beyond job descriptions. The family label can subconsciously put pressure on an employee to prioritize work over personal needs, which can lead to burnout. 
  • Oversharing: The boundary between what is appropriate to share with coworkers might blend into what is appropriate to share with “family,” leading to oversharing of sensitive information. This can cause discomfort and make addressing work-related issues more complex.
  • Difficulty Saying No: Saying “no” to family can be difficult, and framing the workplace as a family can make employees feel obligated to accept additional work and unreasonable demands because it is framed as “helping out the family.” Additionally, toxic leaders can take advantage of this and push employees to burn out, quit unexpectedly, or simply stop showing up.

Unhealthy Dynamics

Family relationships are complex and can be dysfunctional. Transference of these dynamics to the workplace can be highly problematic: 

  • Favoritism: When some employees become “family” to the manager, it can create favoritism and resentment among others, impacting morale and productivity. This can also lead to legal ramifications if the preferential treatment disregards protected classes and groups.
  • Hesitation to Give Honest Feedback: Honest and clear feedback is crucial for professional growth and workplace improvements. However, if employees are viewed as family, constructive criticism can be misconstrued as personal attacks. 
  • Toxic Loyalty: A strong work family can create an “us vs. them” mentality, making employees reluctant to report bad behavior or raise concerns. This can lead to a culture of silence about serious issues. 

Disregarding Individual Needs

Families come in all different shapes and sizes, but workplaces are meant to be diverse. The “family” label can:

  • Alienate Employees: Not everyone wants to be close to their coworkers. Introverts or people with complicated family backgrounds might feel excluded or uncomfortable by a “family” label. 
  • Minimize Professional Value: The work employees do is a professional exchange. Viewing this work through a family dynamic can diminish its value and the value employees bring to the table with their skill and experience. 
  • Hinder Career Mobility: When a workplace becomes overly attached to a family identity, employees might feel guilty leaving for better opportunities, which can stifle career growth. 

Building a High Performing Company Culture

So how do you build a high performing company culture without framing it as family? The reality is that most individuals want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves and achieve success. Cultivating this at the workplace takes intentional work on the part of leadership in the following areas: 

  • Focus on Respect and Teamwork: Coworkers don’t have to be best friends in order to work well together. Some of the most successful teams have openly said that they don’t like everyone on the team and still achieve great results. My favorite example of this is the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen dynamic where they don’t truly get along off the basketball court yet won six championships together. 
  • Prioritize Work-Life Balance: Encourage healthy boundaries between work and personal life. Better yet, demonstrate healthy boundaries if you are in a leadership position. This can be in the form of flexible work arrangements when needed or promoting truly unplugging when taking time off. 
  • Recognize and Reward Achievements: Openly share individual and team accomplishments, which helps foster a sense of accomplishment and shared purpose. If you are in a leadership position, be sure to recognize accomplishments from other departments than your own as well. 
  • Prioritize a High-Trust Environment: Create an environment where open communication is the norm. This will allow employees to give more accurate constructive feedback, leading to faster adjustments or improvements, without fear of retribution. 

The Bottom Line

Instead of calling the workplace a family, focus on building a professionally supportive work environment. By fostering respect, clear communication, and healthy boundaries, a thriving workplace where employees feel valued, empowered, and motivated to excel can be created. At the end of the day, happy and healthy employees are the foundation of any truly successful organization. 

Interested in talking more about creating a company culture where high performing teams thrive? Reach out on LinkedIn.

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