Metaphor Watch: Family

It happens in organizations of all sizes and stages.  Well-meaning executives sometimes refer to their company or team as a family.

Don’t do this.

Family comes with love, loyalty, and strong ties that can never be broken.   Family is laden with baggage and dysfunction.

Survey says?  All of the above, and then some.

We come from different family cultures.   The meddling matriarch, the distant or controlling father, the over-protective big brother, the baby:  archetypes don’t play out the same way in every family.

Some families have lifelong relationships.   Some of my family members co-parent with exes and their new partners.   Other families experience permanent breaks.

It’s complicated, and our experiences create how we define the word.

In the 90s, I worked for a company that had been divested by JP Morgan (now Chase.)   Disappointed executives felt they had been disowned by “Mother Morgan.”

When I hear “family” at an organization, I’m usually being told about how an executive or the organization failed to live up to a promise.  (In the case of my ex-JP Morgan colleagues, back in the day, it was the promise of a lifelong relationship.)

We already have complex power dynamics at work.  Invoking our most primal relationships doesn’t simplify things.

Sooner or later a key employee will leave.  Or you’ll have to make a tough choice about an employee’s role, or someone’s tenure with your organization — or a change in your business model.

When you say your company is a family, you’re making a promise you can’t possibly keep.   That’s not a position of strength.

When everyone on your team is there as an adult, you’re better positioned to act.

(In fact, “team” is a far more effective metaphor.)

Canadian Family by Joe Howell, used under Creative Commons license.

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