Historically, many businesses have started as family operations.  Everyone was blood related.  There was a clear chain of command and an unspoken plan for pressing down the power and handing over control of the company.


What fascinates me today is how the meme of the “family business” is still intact — even though few companies are owned and operated by a single family.

Today, strangers working together as one operate most large businesses, and many times you find the present pressing ideal that — “employees are family” — even though it isn’t true.

Strangers can never have the same rights or expectations for future employment that comes with a family business, yet the notion that we’re “all in this together by blood” — even in giant, international, conglomerates — is a curious forcing of a familial tie even when none exists. 

Why do companies try to create the family feeling?  Does it help foster closeness and compatibility?  Does a family create false allegiances and temporary hope?

Several years ago, I attended a meeting where everyone was working on a project together, but none of us were working under the same roof — that’s one bane of being independent contractors — and one of the participants at the initial get-together said, “We’re in this as one.   We’re family.  We’ll make it work.”

The moment the word “family” was spoken, another person raised his hand and, thumping his other hand against the table said, “No.  We are not family.  We are not related.  This is business.  We’re in business together, but there’s no family.”

Well, that comment put a harsh chill in the room on the first day, and I tried to break the forming ice by cracking a joke: “I guess this means ‘getting into bed together’ is out of the question?”

Another guy across the room chuckled, while the woman sitting next to me said, “Oh, we’ll be screwing each other before the meeting is over.”

We all laughed and the permafrost moment passed — but the “We’re not family” guy was slowly squeezed out of the project for what I now believe was his punishment for speaking the truth as he knew it and the reality as we shared it.

Sometimes, it seems, it’s best to play along in business and create new bloodlines and take vows with one another while fomenting new promises, and propagating your future together by nesting with strangers… even if it means you’re branded the black sheep of the family.

14 Comments

  1. Sometimes there’s just no good point in mentioning a truth that is known if mentioning this truth does nothing to change things for the better. Having coffee with a friend, you don’t just suddenly say, “Hey, you have a wart on your nose because you have to realize that they know and even if they don’t know, what are they going to do at that very moment with that knowledge? I’m glad the no family guy was eventually shunned. Makes sense to me.

  2. Gordon!
    That’s a fantastic insight — and you’re right — if there’s a general consensus in a created group that we’re “in this together” then what does it matter what context or definition is given to that framing? We could be a “family” or a “team” or an “indigenous people” or even a “gang” and to try to break apart the meme that brings us together does require a shocking shunning.
    You’re also keenly right about bringing up facts that cannot be changed. “You’re short.” “You’re fat.” “You have a lump on your arm.” are all unnecessary and obvious calling outs of things that cannot be changed or helped in order to press your power against a perceived weakness.
    “Make them different from us, and use that difference to separate them from us” — does nothing good — but it is so incredibly common in every culture and all nations. I guess it must be an embedded part of the evolutionary process to devour the perceived weak.

  3. Gordon —
    Those people are brutes and they know it and they practice their perversions on purpose, but if you get stuck in an informal family of them — a gang of them — you’ll be torn to bits and totally devoured, and if you fight back using the same brutal, obvious, reality about them, they will turn on you with the intent of killing.

  4. A very telling story, David!
    I’ve worked in a place where almost everyone was so driven from whatever was inside them that we worked together almost by instinct – this made all our work, lives and days better. and I’ve worked in a place where almost everybody did just as much work as was absolutely necessary and the smiles only shielded the daggers and the daggers the fear and insecurity that comes from living such a work ethic. completely different cultures.
    And while it may be necessary sometimes to overtly express a sense of commonality among a group of independent workers who rarely see each other, when it is a group that spends the better part of the day together, day after day, such expressions only make the cynical observer watchful.

  5. I appreciate your experience, Dananjay, and I completely understand the need and the want to work well in a group — especially if the work is only temporary and not a career. I can also understand why someone would only want one family and not two, but if the idea of a family is what helps the day go quicker and makes the drudgery tolerable, I don’t object to that sort of classification of shared values.

  6. Yes, David. As long as everybody knows that’s what it is and no more. Strange things happen when a few take it a bit too seriously.
    And the first workplace – the far more professional one – was more like a family than the other.

  7. Right, Dananjay! The only way I can think that the family idea might not work is in the assigning of roles: “You’re the daddy, you’re the mommy, grandpa is over there and you’ll be the baby.” That’s going a little far with the idea, but some people might try to use it to create their own power structure that way…

  8. Hi David,
    The word “family” has its own boundary in business – I think.
    We all know we are not a “family” in a business environment but it probably helps to create an instant bonding.
    If the ultimate goal is to get a job done at its best and a bunch of strangers have to work together – all what matter is to foster an open, transparent, approachable working environment where everyone gets the assurance of being heard.
    An employee knows it’s not him but the closest kin of the owner’s family only will be offered the company president’s chair but he knows he is a “family” if he has the access to the president’s room without any hitch while working.
    And, I don’t think an employee expects anything more than that.

  9. The interesting thing about the “family” meme, Katha, is that it does create a hierarchical way of working that some people may not accept or appreciate — especially if they come from a broken home or a wasted family. For someone to take on the dominant “father” role in a work group may not be appreciated if a team member had to deal with an abusive father in real life. On that level, I can understand why some people might prefer to think in terms of associations and friendships instead of bringing up familiar, and perhaps punishing, “families” in the workplace.

  10. I think David “true business” doesn’t entertain friendship and it shouldn’t either – friendship has got nothing to do with business.
    Some people just happen to be good leaders and good leadership doesn’t mean dominance – it means understanding the pulse of the environment and direct accordingly – it’s the contextual sensitivity” that matters.
    http://www.harvardbusiness.com/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp;jsessionid=B3JIZRHVHPI2IAKRGWDSELQBKE0YIISW?ml_action=get-article&articleID=R0510B&ml_page=1&ml_subscriber=true
    On the other hand, some people tend to unintentionally copy some dominant key figure in their life – being “imposing” works till a certain point of time, most of the time it backfires.

  11. Absolutely gorgeous look David – love it! Love the related entries too!
    Coming back to the point – successful business leaders need to keep every body aligned – the process has to be different.
    Pretension does not work with the sharper ones – they can see through it – then the leader just loses his/her credibility. It’s the open, flexible and positive attitude that differentiates an average leader from an outstanding one.