Is this the right room for an argument? If it’s not, perhaps it should be.
First of all, where do arguments start? Usually when someone says something that sits at odds with someone else’s values or views of the world and a debate starts. Positions are reinforced, ideas become entrenched… before long it can become heated and things get out of hand. That’s why the diffusing phrases “don’t let’s argue”, or “I don’t want to get into an argument…” feature so prominently when a disagreement surfaces. The very word has become toxic and imbued with negative connotations… but it shouldn’t.
The roots of “argument” lie in the Latin word “arguere”, to make clear, or prove accurate. In Middle English this became a process of reasoning in support of a proposition. So, if you don’t want to argue, you don’t want to accept reasoning and you might be happy with something that is confused, or inaccurate… so let’s argue.
Over the next few articles, I am going to throw out a few contentious statements. I hope they provoke you. I hope you rise to the bait and challenge what I say. Not because I want to get into a row with you. If I wanted to do that I would hop over to Twitter and gladly pick any number of fights with strangers. I just want to question the orthodoxy, because, well, that’s what we like to do.
One of our abiding beliefs is that “just because it’s like this doesn’t mean that that’s how it should be.” There might be a better way – to work, to interact, to speak to people, to organise, to collaborate – and our role is to offer thoughts, ideas and activities that will help you to find that better way.
So here’s my first contention...
Your business isn’t a family.
Thinking it is is duplicitous and manipulative.
There is an oft-quoted observation that, for most organisations, however much they push the “we’re a family” line, if you died you’d be replaced within the month, but for a deeper consideration of the topic you might want to read this HBR article on how the “business-as-family” metaphor can be toxic.
It makes the very good point that you don’t fire a family member or put them through performance improvement plans… however much you might like to.
Nearly as bad is the similar statement that I once saw in a customer service centre: “We treat our Customers as Family.” If that means you don’t speak for months at a time and you moan about each other behind their backs, that’s probably pretty accurate, but I don’t think that’s what they were driving at.
My belief is that using family references is a shorthand to create a non-existent culture of mutual dependability. However much you tussle in your own family dynamics, in most cases, at a time of genuine crisis family members rally round to help. Businesses wish they had that kind of loyalty, so they try to create it by using the same terminology, but there isn’t the same skin in the game.
Who benefits from a manufactured sense of familial bond at work? As a member of a real family, if the individual is having trouble help and support is offered immediately and organically without diverting the matter through the established protocols and procedures of HR. (And don’t get me started on the establishment of a function that sees living, breathing, emotional individuals as “resources”…)
Perhaps the family metaphor is more useful as a lever for the organisation. If you buy into the idea that they care for you and love you like a family member you’re more likely to put up with all the things that upset out of a misplaced sense of guilt.
Maybe it’s to get round the uncomfortable fact that you spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with your real family. Whichever way you slice that it’s just wrong. Don’t try to make it better by pretending that your “work family” matter as much as your actual family.
So what to do about it? Perhaps stop wasting time on meaningless, performative gestures like claiming that a means to an economic end (for employer and employee) has a mystical interpersonal connection. Instead maybe work on actual connection that recognises the strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of the individuals that make up the business. You are all people whose only connection in most cases is that you share the same space, at the same time, working on broadly the same stuff. We’re all different – which is brilliant - and as long as you recognise that people will choose not to leave and will feel better while they’re there.
..A bit like a family.
Next time: Stop doing Employee Engagement surveys and do something useful instead.
Colour; Noun (Vicky Holding and Howard Karloff)