One Happy Family

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 7th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Ever since I started teaching graduate students (something I totally spurned for my decades-long career teaching undergraduates) the traditional sadness at the end of summer has been somewhat mitigated.   Grad students, with their different perspectives, their confidence, deserved and otherwise, their willingness – no desire – to explore new ideas, and, yes, often their naiveté about the sector, is inspiring and energizing and oh so welcome.

We’ve started out exploring leadership—characteristics of a successful leader, differences between management and leadership, leadership as position and leadership as practice, and so much more. And, as with every group of new students, they are working their way through their thinking, experiences, old and new ideas, and more.  But this group, more so than prior ones, seems drawn to the notion that I hear so many people use as a positive when describing a workplace, comparing it (the organization) is like a family.   Every time I hear this, whether it comes from a stranger, a client or a student, I shudder.  Workplaces are not a family or even like a family; they are places of business.  And places of business can require actions that one should never have to contemplate (no matter how much we might like to actually do some of those actions) doing to a family member.

I understand what many people mean when they use that analogy:  they are talking about the positive elements of family—nice, supportive, helpful, warm, caring (but also loving, which isn’t so great at work).  But being all those things can, and should, happen without a workplace being like family.  A recent poll in the Philadelphia Business Journal asked people the following question:  “Does your employer appreciate the work you do in your current job?”  My brain wrenched reading the results:  45% said no.  The leaders at every one of those companies where employees said no should be fired immediately.  Leaders should support and appreciate the toil of all those who work for them, but it can—and should—be done without being “like a family.”

Over the summer, The Nonprofit Center did a website poll asking folks what they see as the essential characteristics of a good leader.  Hands down, integrity was the prime quality, and rightly so.  But, let’s be honest:  how often are lies told within families?  Yes, I’m sure most would consider them little white lies (whether they are or not):  where do babies come from? Is grandma sick?  Why do we have to move?  The pat parental phrase that too many use—“because I said so”—is, technically, not a lie, but it may as well be, as it lacks just as much integrity as lying.  And while there are people in leadership positions who use that same language at work, telling an employee “because I said so” isn’t a behavior that instills trust and faith, let alone a sense of caring and a “good, family feel.”  Nor is it behavior that speaks to the next three characteristics that our random, unscientific poll identified as key attributes of good leaders:  visionary, good listener and inspiring.  On many fronts, behavior that flies in a family is ill-advised at work.

Just because we want a caring workplace that respects people, appreciates their strengths and works to correct their weaknesses, doesn’t mean that we should aspire to a family-like workplace.  We should not be looking to our workplace for our social circle, support network, locus for personal confidences; if this develops with a colleague or two, that is serendipitous, but not the goal of a workplace.

Siblings frequently fight, slam doors, swear they will never talk to the other ever again.  Couples fight.  But there is no place for slammed doors, stomping out of meetings, yelling and similar behaviors in a workplace.  There is a difference between a clash of ideas or approaches and fighting; a difference in liking/loving and respecting.

Recently, I worked with a group of staff who simply did not know how to act professionally, did not know the expectations and parameters of a professional relationship vs. their personal friendships.  They thought it perfectly alright for two to roll eyes about the third, to pit two against one repeatedly, to point out the failures of the person rather than of the employee, to say, “Don’t ask me about my weekend on Monday morning; in fact, just don’t talk to me.”  This may fly in a family but it is absolutely unacceptable in a workplace.

Those of us who are lucky have been told since birth, “I will always love you; there is nothing you can do that will ever change that.  You will always be part of this family.”  But the behaviors that won’t get you banned from your family can—and often should—get you fired from the workplace.  Every employee must respect his/her colleagues, and figure out a way to work with and support colleagues, not out of friendship or family ties, but out of a professional commitment to a shared end goal, which, in the case of nonprofits, is our mission.

Families tolerate a lot; workplaces should not be expected to do the same.  While families are about self-perpetuation, nonprofit workplaces are about perpetuation of mission and the serving of those in need.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.