Organizations Are Not Families, Part 1

I read Joe Berkowitz's story in Fast Company, John Oliver Was Right: It’s Time To Confront The Dustin Hoffmans In Your Life. There's a link to a video excerpt in which Hoffman discusses the idea that the people felt like a family.

Mr. Berkowitz says this:

There is no template for how to be a good man in the #MeToo era.

I disagree.

There is a template. My father called it being “professional.” Here's how he explained professionalism to me when I started to work. (My first job was an arts and crafts counselor when I was 14. I was terrible at it.)

  • I had to be on time for work.
  • I had to be dressed appropriately for the work.
  • I had to be courteous to everyone, regardless of who they were. I dealt with children, their parents, and several layers of management. It didn't matter who said what, it was my job to be courteous.

Notice that his definition of professionalism was about respect—respect for my work, respect for the people I worked with, and respect for myself.

I learned more as I worked throughout high school, in college, and finally as a software developer:

  • I had to let my teammates and managers know my status. I couldn't “go dark” or say, “later…” or even be vague about what I was doing. I owed them words and specifics.
  • I had to give other people the benefit of the doubt. Even—maybe especially—if I thought they were bozos.

Notice my refinement of the notion of respect. I could disagree with people. I could tear apart their code and designs—as long as I did it with respect.

Later, when I became a manager, I expanded what it meant to be professional:

  • Create a culture of personal safety inside the organization. I didn't tolerate sexism, dirty jokes, or any other supposed jokes that made fun of people.
  • Create a culture where people could—at the least—come to me so we could problem-solve together, even if they didn't feel comfortable with confrontation.
  • I provided people feedback and coaching (if desired) because letting people know the effects of their actions (good and not so good) and offering to help them improve was a mark of my respect for them.
  • I met with people every week or every other week, to build and maintain that trusting relationship. Yes, one-on-ones are a sign of respect for the people you lead.

I built a culture of respect with my staff and with my peers.

I was not perfect. I made some huge mistakes. I was pretty good at management. Being pretty good bought me the trust and respect from the people I led and with my peers.

I first heard the “we are family” myth about organizations back in the 80s when I worked for a small startup. The CEO said that in an all-hands meeting. I told him then and there that he was dead wrong. I treasured my professional relationships with everyone there, but they were not part of my family. (I might have used those exact words. I can be blunt and be respectful.)

As a manager and as a consultant, I have had to deal with the perception that I could be a “mother-like figure” to the people I managed or my clients. I explained that I was not their mother. I coached them. I provided and received feedback. I cleared obstacles. I was not their mother.

When the organizational leaders talk about “family,” they disrespect us. They treat us as children.

Organizations are not families. That's because the managers have all the organizational power. Too often, instead of using it to create a culture where we can all share knowledge and build respect, they use it to hide information from us.

When supposed leaders hide salaries, ranking, and the career ladder (never mind the project portfolio), they treat us as if we are children. We need to be protected. We need to be sheltered.

Excuse me. We are adults. We manage our finances.  We enter into legal agreements. We might even have children that we do protect and shelter (less and less as they grow up).

We can treat each other as adults, with respect, regardless of the organizational power we supposedly hold, we all win. (Some of us are not so impressed with organizational power.)

Yes, Mr. Berkowitz, we do have a template for being professional. If we respect each other, that's an excellent place to start. It might not cover all circumstances, but it's a start.

This post is already long. I have another post about the consequences of treating people with respect where I'll specifically address Mr. Berkowitz's concerns about being a man and what happens. (Yes, I'll address women, too!)

14 Replies to “Organizations Are Not Families, Part 1”

      1. Walter, interesting analogy.

        I’m going to try to articulate some of the ways I perceive the family analogy at work to be difficult:
        – People die in families. They don’t get laid off, although too many organizations use the word “terminate.”
        – People leave families (children grow up and create their own families as an example). There is no metaphor for that in org-as-family.
        – Families rarely acquire new people. Yes, some people are foster parents or adopt more children later. However, more families acquire people when children marry. There is no metaphor for that in org-as-family.

        I am sure I am missing other circumstances. I just realized this morning I need to address romance in the workplace. We have substantial taboos about romance in families.

        In my experience (which may not match yours), the organizations who prefer the family metaphor use the metaphor to remove any individual’s responsibility and create a command-and-control, power-by-title hierarchy.

        Every family-of-origin is different. My parents gave me responsibility, and in some ways pushed it onto me as early as I might have been capable. They managed the money because I wasn’t making any when I was young. However, I had more freedom and responsibility at home as a teenager than some of my managers wanted to provide me in my 20s and 30s.

  1. Very well said. It does feel like the “family” term is used as a way to create a one-sided sense of emotional debt, guilt even, on the part of the workers. It’s utter bullshit, but you expressed this much better than I could.

    1. Gabe, thanks. I am working on the second part now, where I do have the part about overtime. I didn’t get the guilt gene from my family, one of many things they did right! I have rejected this from my employers.

  2. Excellent post, Johanna. Leaders/managers often use the “family” line to try to blur the lines, so that asking employees to work long hours/weekends seems less unreasonable. It’s funny how so many of them that try this don’t have families of their own! Compensating for something lacking in their own lives, perhaps?

    1. John, It might be because they don’t have families. However, I think it’s more likely that their thinking goes along these lines:
      – I always worked hard and I accomplished what I wanted.
      – Why can’t “my people” work that hard? They will accomplish what I want.

      I don’t think people consciously think along these lines. I do think their actions reflect this.

      There might be something else going on, too. When my managers have asked me to work overtime or to postpone a vacation, they saw the release as something that personally reflected on them. The problem is this: they are actually totally in charge of what the org releases and how good it is. I’ve been asking the “How little” question forever, as in “How little can we do and provide value?” (I wrote about this in Manage It! and in Create Your Successful Agile Project and on this blog back in 2003, How little can you do?.

      Too often, managers abdicate the roadmap to the product management function. They abdicate the project portfolio to the PMO. Managers have to respect themselves and define/refine the strategy and then make these decisions.

      Well, that was a long-winded answer. Let me pop back up the stack for a sec, and ask this question: What would have to be true for these managers, that they make these decisions? If we can start with a feeling of empathy, we might be able to understand and address the problems that lead to this behavior. I do discuss this question in another part, which is growing 🙂

  3. I know this is a great series of posts because I keep thinking about it. Today’s thought was about “The Godfather” as an example of what happens when an organization truly is a family.

    1. Walter, thank you. Argh, yes “The Godfather” is a business in a family! I had not thought of that. Thanks.

        1. Hehehe. I guess I have a little homework ahead of me, especially if I want to turn this series into something “more.”

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