Are We a Family?

I’ve never been a fan of employers describing their teams as “families.” I understand the term’s appeal: families look out for one another and share a deep, unrelenting (genetic) bond that unites members through thick and thin. Families are cohesive (save for those awkward Thanksgiving dinners) and enduring. These are all great things! So why does the term feel so disingenuous?

Organizations are not families.

Unlike in a family, employers should have no expectation that employees will be with them forever, nor should they expect them to make long-term sacrifices for the sake of their organization’s success. That’s largely because an employee’s tenure at an organization isn’t guaranteed regardless of performance or contribution. The term “family” implies unquestioning, lifelong group membership; for the sake of both employees and employers, no such promise exists in organizations.

When you really think about it, an organization that actually ran like a family would be dysfunctional at best (as most families are) and utterly non-functioning at worst. It would operate in the best interests of neither the group nor its individual members.

And yet, having a framework to conceptualize and discuss our relationship to our employer and fellow employees is valuable. So what is a more apt metaphor for how we should operate, collaborate, and grow?

Channeling DaVita’s Kent Thiry, I prefer thinking of our organization, Philanthropy University, as a town.

In a town, people come and go; some hunker down for life, while others are just passing through. Regardless of tenure, each citizen is respected and given opportunities and recognition commensurate with their contributions.

A town has vibrant customs and traditions. Some towns have different dialects and wardrobes. Towns with the most developed, complex, and shared cultures are typically stronger and more beloved by citizens than towns without.

The best towns proactively invest in their citizens, constantly striving to make them smarter, stronger, and more efficient.

A town has laws and rules of governance. These rules are spoken and unspoken, and dictate how people live and work with one another.

A town has resources that town members can both consume and create. When a town’s resources are limited, citizens feel the crunch; in times of success, citizens share in the bounty.

A town has invaders and competitors. In times of threat, towns rally together, identify competitive advantages, and exploit competing towns’ weaknesses.

In a town, citizens have different functions that each support the overarching entity. Some build roads and infrastructure; others teach or harvest resources.

A town is an enduring organism that no single person owns. While every town has leaders, even the most senior are held accountable to the town’s laws and customs.

Perhaps most profoundly, in a town, every citizen recognizes that they are creating something that will endure long after they leave, striving for something far greater than themselves.

Instead of trying to artificially construct a family environment, ask yourself: what kind of town are you building?