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.