“We are family” sings Sisters Sledge, “Everybody get up and sing.”
While it’s ok to shake and shimmy to this song at the office party, I hope that no company adopts this tune as its theme song.
“We are family.” While I can appreciate that these three words generate warm fuzzy feelings and engender sentiments of belonging and safety, I truly believe that they are inappropriate to describe an organisational setting or culture.
When organisations pull the family card, I wonder “If you are family, then who is the father, who is the mother and who are the children?’
The family narrative plays out in several ways.
Very often there is the paternalistic father figure, who dispenses advice and shares his wisdom whether solicited or not. He knows best, the team unquestioningly follows his lead and does as he says. He gives treats for good behaviour and metes out “fair and just” punishment when orders are not followed.
On several occasions, I have had to explain to team members that I am not a big sister nor am I a mother. There seemed to be an unspoken assumption that because my gender is female, that I should be more understanding, more compliant, more forgiving than my male counterparts. I was expected to have a sixth sense and to display an inordinate amount of caring. If not, then I automatically became a witch. Being female has never made me more intuitive, or clued in or sensitive to what is going on with people. I have had to stop, ask questions and listen empathetically to understand situations. This did not come with my femininity and “No” it’s not a gift. It’s a skill that I have honed.
When leaders adopt paternalistic or maternalistic roles they are setting up co-dependent relationships with team members. Members become dependent, they do not have to think for themselves and as with all dependency relationships they secretly harbour ill feelings towards the parental figures. The parent figures also become burdened, wondering why the teams don’t show initiative or are not proactive. This gives them (leaders) even more reason to keep on parenting.
I want to work with adults, with brilliant, creative adults who take personal responsibility for their actions and can be held accountable. I want to create adult-to-adult relationships in which, each party is responsible for tending to the relationship. I want to work with people who will take a risk and are willing to make mistakes. I do not want to bribe or coerce team members to work. I want to work with people who want to work, because they think that something in the work does something for them. I want to lead a team of adults.
I have had many team members throughout my career, I have never had an office husband or an office wife, no one was a little sister or a father figure to me. I treat team members as adults and simply ask that they do the same to me. Each day I leave my family and go to work with teams.
How do you describe your team and the members- work family or adults? How is that working for for you? How is it working for the people that you lead?
Maxine Attong is the author of Lead Your Team To Win and Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual. She is an Executive Coach, an Organisational Development Consultant, and a Certified Accountant. Maxine works with leaders and teams to create more effective organisations.