Have you read The Book of Boundaries by Melissa Urban? If you haven’t, open up a browser tab and order it from your favorite independent bookstore right now. It’s an amazing guide and could change parts of your life (it has scripts!). Urban is the co-founder of Whole30 and an expert at helping people set boundaries, particularly around food and eating habits. In her chapter on work boundaries, Urban includes a side bar about workplaces that consider their employees family. She considers it a red flag, and points out that the Harvard Business Review agrees. “When a business uses the family metaphor, it creates an even more unbalanced power dynamic where your boss isn’t just your boss – they’re also your parent, demanding loyalty, respect, and obedience instead of teamwork, trust, and a fair exchange of value” (p. 64).
Several years ago I read that considering many (most?) families are dysfunctional, referring to your team as a family was sending a negative message, especially to employees who have experienced family trauma. The author encouraged hiring managers to look beyond the warm and fuzzy perceptions of a big, happy family and consider the lived experiences of candidates and employees. In other words, family means different things to different people.
In higher ed, we are in the business of changing people’s lives. This can often result in workplace situations where shit gets real quickly. Faculty and staff support each other, get vulnerable, have collective experiences that no one else understands, and establish close relationships that last a long time. In these instances, I will often hear employees talk about how their high functioning, high performing team is like a family, and they mean it. They are referring to the positive attributes of family – a sense of belonging, compassion, respect, trust, support.
When leaders promote a family culture in the workplace, there maybe be initial benefits such as positive emotional attachment, but the long term effects can be damaging. Environments that prioritize loyalty discourage the healthy communication and psychological safety that feed innovation, problem solving, and working through disagreements in healthy ways. According to Harvard Business Review, this can actually lead to unethical behavior, exploitation (i.e., keep it in the family), and burnout. Treating your team as a family is an antiquated leadership practice.
Instead, you can acknowledge the best traits of your team by labeling them (“Our team works really hard to create a sense of belonging and inclusiveness.”), talking about the collective impact of your work (“We are really proud of the impact our work has on students.”), and expressing how much you enjoy each other’s company. You can set your team up for success by defining clear performance expectations and cultivating a culture of learning, while also acknowledging the team’s impermanence.
The social contract between employers and employees has been changing for a long time and this change has accelerated since 2020. Equitable, high performing workplaces provide us with purpose, fulfillment, relationships, and a paycheck. Let’s stop calling it a family.
P.S. I’d like to thank my colleagues who joined me in a recent discussion of The Book of Boundaries that inspired this post. You know who you are and I appreciate each of you.