Thinking they’re a family doesn’t motivate your team.
You’ve probably heard leaders say it and you might have even said it yourself when you were hoping to motivate your team.
“I treat my team like family” or “We’re one big family here at XYZ Corp.”
It feels like a nice thing to say. You want them to know you care about them as people; that everyone cares about each other; and we may fight at times, but we always come back together.
We are all about genuine caring and connection. Winning Well leaders focus on both results and relationships.
However, there are three problems with comparing your team or company to a family and they can badly undermine your leadership and your team’s effectiveness.
1. You don’t know what “family” means.
Each team member will interpret “family” differently depending on their past. For some, the definition of family is “that safe place where you are always accepted no matter how badly you’ve screwed up.”
For another team member, the family might mean a dysfunctional, tense situation that they left as soon as they could.
For another team member, family means they just wait for their parent to tell them what to do and they don’t have to think for themselves.
As soon as you use a word like “family” you’ve lost a shared, mutually understood set of expectations about what success looks like.
2. You’re not a family.
When it comes to motivating your team, one of the biggest problems “family” language creates is the obvious one: you’re not a family. One big difference that I’ve seen create problems for many businesses is the idea that you can’t fire a brother or sister for poor performance.
I’ve listened to sad employees receive a letter of separation and tearfully tell their manager, “But we’re supposed to be a family. This isn’t right.” And they believe it, and they’ve been allowed to believe it, because the manager so frequently spoke in terms of family.
Teams exist to achieve a shared goal, whether it’s to serve your customer, create change in the world, or solve a significant problem. When your behavior doesn’t align with that goal, you can and should be removed from the team. Families may or may not share a common goal, and rarely does poor behavior get you removed from a family.
3. You make growth difficult.
Small teams and businesses will often speak of themselves as a family. It’s natural–the constant time spent with your team, high pressure, the informal meetings, and lack of structure that often come with small organizations can feel very family-like.
However, this mindset makes it very challenging to motivate your team when you want to grow. Team members who enjoyed the casual environment and lack of structure start to complain when you introduce role clarity, define MITs, and increase accountability.
This is where you hear things like, “We used to be a family, but now we’re becoming so…corporate!” Corporate is said as if it were a poisonous snake (and, to be fair, if their experience of corporate has been to be treated like a number, not a person, it may have been poisonous.)
How to Motivate Your Team When They Talk About Family
When you hear your team talking about being a family (or if you’ve used this language yourself), I invite you to Ditch the Diaper Drama with your team and have a straightforward conversation. You might start with:
“I’ve heard us talk about being a family and I’ve said it as well. I want to talk about that. Family can mean different things to different people and I’d like for us to make sure we are on the same page and understand one another.”
In this conversation, you want to reinforce that you are a team (or organization) focused on both results and relationships. Clarify the MITs and What Success Looks Like. You might use the Expectations Matrix to facilitate a conversation and identify gaps in expectations.
Clarify your culture (How people like us act) with regard to how you will treat one another with respect, compassion, and hold one another accountable. If growth is in your future, talk about how it will require more role clarity and more structure, and how treating one another with respect, compassion, and holding each other accountable should never change.
Remember that “family” can mean something very different from what you intend and create bad misunderstandings for your team. To motivate your team, take the time to clarify shared expectations about your purpose and the ways in which you will respect and care for one another.
We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and share your thoughts about what it means for a business team to be “like family.”
Author and international keynote speaker David Dye gives leaders the roadmap they need to transform results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. He gets it because he’s been there: a former executive and elected official, David has over two decades of experience leading teams and building organizations. He is President of Let’s Grow Leaders and the award-winning author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say, and Glowstone Peak — a book for readers of all ages about courage, influence, and hope.