If you’re calling your work team family, you’re doing it wrong

You may really like your team, but it is not your family.
You may really like your team, but it is not your family.
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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It’s not uncommon to hear bosses refer to their employees as a “family.” I used to do it, too. The characterization can seem like a harmless way to generate camaraderie and community.

But your coworkers are not actually “like a family.” You’re born into your family; where you work and who you hire involves making choices. And encouraging employees to think of one another as family can have negative consequences.

I first realized the dangers of calling employees “family” early on at my company, when I had to let several people go for performance reasons. These were gregarious people who were beloved by their coworkers, and when their teams found out about the firings, they were absolutely beside themselves. My decision was widely questioned. I realized we had created an environment where the unconditional love and support for longtime colleagues clouded our collective ability to make smart business and hiring decisions. We needed to make a change.

Instead, I now describe our team as a tribe. It’s a concept made popular by Seth Godin— and one that I’m actively drawing from to bring our team together through shared values, purpose and performance rather than some kind of family obligation.

This isn’t just a matter of semantics. To truly shift from a family to a tribe, we’ve had to make concrete changes to our processes and approach. Here’s what’s worked for us so far.

Build a culture focused on purpose

To move away from the family mentality, it’s important to shift employees’ sense of belonging from “we all work at the same place” to “we share the same values and purpose.” Of course, uniting employees through values and purpose means that these elements must be clearly defined and communicated in the first place. Netflix’s Culture Deck is the holy grail here, and it is one of the main reasons the company was able to thrive and innovate when its competitors could not. In our case, we think of values on a company-wide level, but also emphasize the importance of purpose on the team level. Why does this team and product exist? What are we trying to achieve— beyond sales targets? What is my role in helping us get there? If employees don’t have a clear and shared sense of the goals they’re working toward and why, the team suffers from both a performance and culture perspective.

Hire slowly, fire quickly

When we operated as a family, our leaders were often quick to hire people that they liked or who seemed like great culture fits, without much formal vetting. Now, we take our time. Similar to Zappos—a company that’s done an incredible job of creating a purpose-driven culture—we interview by assessing prospective employees’ alignment with each of our company values. We prioritize a candidate’s passion for our company’s purpose and her performance potential over how fun she’d be at happy hour. At the same time, we’ve learned the importance of firing quickly. When an employee’s performance slips and he’s no longer aligned with the team’s passion for our collective purpose, we must act swiftly—regardless of how important that person is to our company culture.

Map out your tribe

Unlike families, tribes have natural hierarchies. Each person plays a specific part and understands her role in advancing the tribe’s higher purpose. It’s important that companies create or adopt clear frameworks to help define each employee’s role and objectively assess his or her performance. One way to do this is through “stack ranking,” or the vitality curve model, which was made famous by General Electric’s former chairman and CEO Jack Welch as a way to identify high and low performers. In our case, we use a system called Star Mapping that helps us identify top performers and figure out who may be at odds with the purpose we’re working toward. And we’re transparent about this, so that each member of the team has a clear sense of where he stands. Frameworks like these help leaders ensure their decisions are based on performance and the company’s purpose rather than personal preference and politics.

There’s a reason the family analogy is so common in the corporate world— it’s familiar, comforting, and represents most of our first experiences with community. But in business, it can be disaster. Shifting to a tribal model and placing the emphasis on values and purpose allows companies to reap the business benefits while also creating the type of culture today’s workforce seeks.

Bruce Poon Tip is the founder of G Adventures.