Using ‘family vocabulary’ in our teams

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Adam Grant – Wharton Business School’s popular (and brilliant!) organizational psychologist – posted an assertion on LinkedIn, which was reposted from Twitter, earlier this year that caught my eye. It caught my eye because it challenged something that we do here at Growmotely. It read as follows:

A company isn’t a family. Parents don’t fire their kids for low performance or furlough them in hard times. A better vision for a workplace is a community – a place where people bond around shared values, feel valued as human beings, and have a voice in decisions that affect them.

Unfortunately, I don’t agree with his assertion that parents don’t fire their kids for low performance – as I have seen that in action – but this isn’t the statement that offered the challenge. The statement that piqued my interest was the one that was made out of the starting blocks…a company isn’t a family.

As entrepreneurs, we have to – and we get to – decide what we call the people we work with every day. What we call each other matters. And what we call our people – as leaders – always carries weight. Is Adam Grant right? Should we steer away from conflating companies with families? Or: might we prove him wrong this time?

Here at Growmotely, we throw around a number of different things when it comes to what we call each other, but it is 100% true that family, fam, brother, sister, sis – and then some Spanish variations on these types of words (e.g. hermano, hermana, tío, tía) also feature now and again.

This calls the question. What exactly is a family? 

We know from families who have adopted – and from people who have been adopted – (amongst others) that family is not restricted to shared blood and shared genes. And we know from anthropologists and sociologists that mores and social structures in families vary drastically depending on the region of the world we find ourselves in. We also know from people who have been rejected from their family of origin, or who have chosen to cut themselves off from family, that they can go on to create a network of people that resembles a family and perhaps acts as a sort of surrogate family structure.

In other words – family is surely a construct! Yes?

What does family mean to you? And do you see your team members as your family? Or does using that word in the context of work feel unaligned or even wrong?

And: when it comes to company culture, what – as entrepreneurs – can we learn from healthy families that thrive? And what can we learn from dysfunctional families?

If the concept of a family is at least in part a construct, then surely, a company is as well.

Adam Grant’s contention that “parents don’t fire their kids for low performance” is not only objectively false, it also makes a potentially untrue assumption: Is it true that all companies fire their employees for low performance? Our Founder and CEO Sarah Hawley points out that in her companies, she doesn’t “fire people for poor performance“, but rather invites an open discussion as to whether the company is a good fit for the person and vice versa…and if together there is agreement that it isn’t working, the relevant parties work together to move toward what is best for both sides.

Companies have (implicit) societal permission – and often even an expectation – to define their company values. This provides a framework and externalized commitment to how everyone is agreeing to behave – or (at the very least) how everyone will strive to behave. If only more families engaged with this type of exercise!

And what about companies that are literally made up of families? Family businesses. If families and companies are indeed to be completely separate things, how could the phenomenon of the family business even work? Does a group of people that are bonded together need to only be one thing? “In a recent blog post written to our remote professionals – in response to the violence that has upended so many people living in the Ukraine – I equate our global, remote teams to networks of informal peacebuilders, thanks to the personal bonds we form with our team members around the world. Can we not be all of these things if we choose? Companies, families and informal teams of peacebuilders?

In the end, both a family and a company are constructs. How can we draw from the very best of these models to create companies and families that thrive and serve humanity? And while we’re at it: what language can we use – what can we call each other – to more fully draw out the beauty in all of the ways in which we organize ourselves as people? Here at Growmotely, for the moment, many of us do use these ‘family terms’ amongst ourselves, and it feels aligned and authentic for us, which is why we continue to do it. We’ll be sure to let you know if our language evolves into something else…!

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