When I hear people say that their company is like family or that a shop has a family atmosphere, I often wonder what kind of family they have in mind. All of us have different experiences of family. There are many kinds of families.
On the face of it, a family and a business company are such fundamentally different entities that the comparison might seem totally inapt. What family can hire or fire its members? What company can carry the weak or the dysfunctional the way relatives do?
The bonds that create a family are quite unlike the economic transactions that constitute the employee-employer relationship. Consider how this disparity is often a challenge for family-owned companies. Dealing with incompetent family members puts family interests in direct conflict with business imperatives.
Despite all of this, there is an affinity between family and company that naturally invites comparison. I see this in my own experiences. I have been to many workplaces where the positive similarities to a family relationship are rather striking.
To start, these companies are simply marked by genuine caring and acceptance among co-workers and managers. The people are nice to each other. I’d surmise that the warmth that comes across reminds us of family so strongly because we readily recall the care and acceptance we received as children from our parents.
However, strong families and strong companies share something more substantial but less easily detected. This characteristic goes beyond smiles and friendly handshakes. It’s a sense of mutual obligation and responsibility. Members of a family must be willing to fulfill their duties and commitments to each other. This willingness has to be developed as children grow and mature. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen in every family. We tend to focus more on the hugs and less on the tough love that truly distinguishes the formative, edifying power of a family.
Employees and employers emulate this aspect of family life by taking their job duties to heart. It calls for a spirit of self-sacrifice, too—putting the goals of the work group ahead of personal reward. It takes a rare form of business leadership to instill this level of giving.
If evoking the family as a corporate ideal reinforces both concern for the individual and the call to personal responsibility, then it really is worthwhile. When these dual characteristics are present, saying that a company is like a family is truly a significant statement—and a high compliment.