Work Should Not Be "Like a Family"
By Monika Jiang
What makes a family a family are its codes and relationships: inextricably intertwined truths, each with its own histories and stories of pride, success, and joy, as well as of trauma, loss, and despair. Family, in essence, lives within you (which were the wise words of Simba’s father in Disney’s The Lion King). You can never entirely remove yourself from their quirks, nor they from you. Everyone contributes to an unspoken “family code” of rituals, traditions, and patterns. There may be repressed experiences that cannot be discussed under any circumstances, and delicate topics that are never part of “dinner table talk.” And then there are those habits and behaviors that creep along through generations, exploding in moments of anger and resentment.
Despite the fact that we’ve all wanted to be part of a different family at one point or another, we love our families, in the rawest form. We’d be willing to give and forgive (almost) anything, wouldn’t we?
That’s where phrases “it’s like a family here” to describe a supposedly ideal workplace get tricky. It presumes we want a workplace that resembles the atmosphere of our homes — and many of us may not. And if we are “like a family” at our jobs, we might miss the bit of emotional detachment that is necessary for us to perform both loyally and with integrity.
Recent research on team dynamics suggests that people tend to be more reluctant to call out wrongdoing at work when the bonds to their colleagues are stronger. We don’t want to blow the whistle on people we share an intimate, familiar circle with. What seems like well-intentioned and protective behavior can quickly turn into a culture lacking professionalism and, worse than that, an increase in misconduct that never gets reported.
The beauty at work is the unrelated relatedness you share with colleagues — or to put it differently, you are one another’s “kith and kin.” You share a belief in a larger mission, ideally, and probably spend more time together on a weekly basis than you do with anyone else in your life, yet there’s still a part of the other’s history that will forever remain “outside the scope.” At work we can learn how to deal with conflict instead of sinking into passive aggressiveness — or worse, cynicism. And finally, unlike a family, we can leave on our own terms.
While work needn’t be like a family, there is one facsimile of family life that we’d all be lucky to have on the job: parents — at least the good kind.
I never wanted to be a parent. With my 29th birthday just a day away, I can hear the social and biological clocks ticking: time’s running out, they whisper. You better grow up, settle into a stable relationship, and work on your reproductive duties. I’m not ready yet, and maybe never will be. And yet, I’m not here for myself. Like anyone else, I’m here for others I care for. I want to see others find and get into their thing, give them the affirmation they need, the guidance they want, the help they didn’t ask for. In other words, I do strive to become a parent in a metaphorical sense.
At work, I’m lucky to be surrounded by such parents all the time. Till and Tim are my work parents, sometimes caring and protective like mothers, always nurturing and comforting, never blaming or judging me for the way I behave or react, even if it’s deeply irrational and impulsive. And, like fathers, they find their ways of expressing trust, affection, and criticism, and display a father-like pride their children accomplish something that means the world to them.
Megan, whom I was intimidated by for a long time (and still am, in a good way), is also a parent to me. Not only because of her New Yorker toughness, but because she’s one of the most brilliant minds I know, someone I learn from without noticing I’m learning, and whose warmth transcends the Zoom screens and the comments in Google docs. Recently a few people have told me that they, too, first felt intimidated by me, which I felt quite uncomfortable with and decided, it must be because of my work ethic (thanks, Ma and Pa!).
I wonder if this sense of being intimidated (or what’s popularly called “Imposter Syndrome”) often really stems from a desire to be parented. We all want to grow as people and as leaders, andand to learn and love. On this basis, my work parents give me a space to be critical, to to acknowledgee harsh words even though they hurt at first, and they withstand my acts of defiance. Without formalizing this into a mentorship program, but more along the lines of “mentors of the moment,” as Harvard Business Review describes it, my relationship with my work parents allows me to be the child we all are of someone, and inspires me to become a better parent someday, too.
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Monika Jiang is the head of content and community at the House of Beautiful Business, a global community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.