In the Family Way

by Jennifer Miller on October 29, 2009

in Leadership

Years ago, I attended a company-wide meeting in which the company’s President Pete addressed the employees.  During his presentation, he declared, “It’s great to work here at XYZ Company.  It’s like family here.”  At the time I thought, “Well that’s a nice thing to say” and didn’t really give it another thought.

So imagine my surprise a few months later when at a different presentation, Sally, a VP in the company said, “Now, I know that Pete’s fond of saying we’re like a family here at XYZ Company.  I know he means well and that he says this with a positive connotation. But I’m here to tell you that I do not believe that the XYZ Company is like a family.  And here’s why. . .”  Sally went on compare and contrast teams and families.  In her mind, there are indeed similarities—both teams and families are groups of people who interact. But there is also a key difference.  Simply put, there are things that you will do for your family that you will not do for your team or your company.  Sally felt it was very important to call out this distinction.

This is a vivid illustration of the care that leaders must take when communicating to a large audience.  As leaders, we must carefully choose the metaphors we use to help draw people together.  In Pete’s case, he thought he was creating positive associations by comparing an employee population with families. What he hadn’t stopped to consider was that “family” may not have had a positive connotation for some of his followers.

To Sally’s point, leaders may create confusion in the minds of employees when making sweeping generalizations or comparisons.  When an employee hears “we’re like family”, what are the expectations created?  To what lengths must employees go to satisfy the “boss” if he/she thinks the company behaves like a family? Conversely, what will the company do the “stand by” the employee during tough times? These are dynamics that family members may demonstrate, but it is fair for employees to expect the same of their employer?

Clearly, I don’t think Pete meant to say that the employees of XYZ Company are exactly like families.  But this story can be a good cautionary tale to leaders in need of rallying the troops— craft your message carefully and look for hidden meanings and interpretations.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas Waterhouse October 30, 2009 at 6:19 am

Hi Jennifer. Caution in the use of metaphors is no small point, and I’m glad that you’re making it! Some people are “wired” to listen in the “abstract”, and they can make generalizations based on what they hear. Others listen and hear in the “concrete”, and they go to “black-and-white” conclusions. Our teams and audiences of every variety have both types of listeners/processors in it. I like the points you make. They lift the haze and open my eyes to important things. Thank you!

Becky Robinson November 1, 2009 at 3:11 am

This post reminds me of when my husband started at his new job about 7 years ago. EVERYONE described the government agency that he works for as a family. While we have made some close friends through his work, I have never seen evidence that would make me call it that.

I think when we communicate about work in certain terms, as in the case of my husbands coworkers calling their agency a family, it creates certain expectations in people’s minds. Even if the connotations are good, we are setting people up for disillusionment and disappointment.

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