Do you want to build a clan or a collective?

“Our agency is like a family.” I’ve heard this many times, always said with no small degree of pride by a founder or leader. But do we want our workplace to be like a family? Let’s face it, our industry is full of people from dysfunctional families, homes with alcoholism, abuse, or other kinds of crazy. Which makes “work-as-family” a loaded term. 

A few weeks ago, I was on the patio of a downtown Seattle restaurant on a summer afternoon talking about agency life with a friend who is a senior creative. She said many of us work crazy hours for difficult clients because we grew up in homes so dysfunctional that some degree of madness feels familiar. “Regular” jobs are boring and we go looking – intentionally or not – for drama, intensity and conflict. And we find it in advertising. 

As she spoke, a man walked past us towards the restaurant next door. He had a goat carcass—skinned and ready for the knife—over his shoulder. I eat meat and I enjoy going to restaurants, but I don’t need to see the goat carcass being hauled through the patio any more than I need to see what happens to the goat in the slaughterhouse. A lot of people, me included, are happy to keep family dynamics, with their messy interplay of vulnerability and need, their heavy demands of unconditional love and duty, as far from the office as possible. We’d rather savor the finished product, cooked, plated, and garnished without having to ponder the glistening slabs of bone and sinew that family can be. 

Of course family dynamics crop up at work, and family can be a useful analogy for studying leadership. But deliberately trying to make a company like a family can be a serious error. For one thing, the word “family” can mean different things to different people. For some it’s positive and nurturing. For others it’s darker. Either way, the other folks in the shop may prefer a different metaphor for their workplace. 

The way we work is also changing. More people are participating in the gig economy and many shops rely heavily on freelancers and consultants to provide skills and expertise they can’t afford to have full time. What a business owner might see as a happy family can look downright tribal when you’re on the outside looking in. The us-and-them dynamic can alienate even the most dedicated freelancer who might add more value to an organization if the model was more collective than clan.  

Some folks think that being in a family means unconditional love and that you can be your true self, unabashed in your personal expression. But a little distance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it’s better if people rein that in a little, if they’re just slightly abashed at work. People in creative shops need to work together well. Patience, politeness and consideration are more effective tools than putative familial bonds. Ideally, positive connections will flourish, but what happens at work is not love and it’s definitely not unconditional, which is what keeps most HR departments busy. 

Not everyone needs to know all about the personal lives of their co-workers. As a manager, I want to know if you need help or if a personal problem is impacting your work: a sick child, a pregnancy, a death or illness in the family. I want to know if want more training because you’re afraid of a new assignment, or if you’re concerned about your career path and want a plan. But when the work-as-family dynamic takes over, some workers (especially those with less job experience) may start to think that their co-workers and managers are interested in all of their feelings and concerns. Blurring these lines can create bonds. It can be positive and increase morale. But if you need to have a difficult conversation, then the work-as-family dynamic may lead the person on the other side of the desk to say, “I thought we were friends” or “we’re supposed to be like a family here.” At that point, you really do have a family dynamic, just not one that’s helpful or that serves the business. 

Just like the man carrying the goat carcass through the tables outside the restaurant, I’m pretty sure that agency-as-family isn’t such a good idea. Yes, some of us have learned how to make a good living from a bad case of transference, but we can find healthier ways to run a business and we can start with a more skillful analogy. 

Culture Blindness

Hidden Genius