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Should Employees Be Viewed As A ‘Family’ Or ‘Sports Team’ By Business Leaders?

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at July 30, 2021

Cybele Negris is CEO & Co-Founder of Webnames.ca & WebnamesCorporate.com leaders in domain name registration, webhosting and online security.

The average employee spends 13 years and two months of their life at work. Workplace culture is a powerful ingredient to success, and in the early stages of a small organization, it is often driven from the top by the business leaders. As organizations grow, employees churn, teams become more structured and develop sub-cultures of their own. These cultures define the ethos of the organization and develop impressions in employees that inform their commitment, loyalty, sense of accomplishment and perception of their value in the organization.

The likening of an organization’s staff to a sports team and explicit rejection of it as a family made the news a while back and elicited impassioned opinions all around. In an internal email sent by Shopify CEO, Tobias Lütke, last August, the idea that colleagues could be described as family was labeled “preposterous,” and while I do not entirely agree with him, I can see the context and thought behind his note.

Understanding The Family And Sports Team Comparisons

Family is an incredibly precious part of life for each of us, as it is driven by emotions, filial bonds and primal instincts. Including an “outsider” into that inner circle called family could indicate that there really is a strong degree of trust, reliance and loyalty that is mutually reciprocated and fulfilling. Each of those characteristics is incredibly important to the group of individuals.

Families are knit together through mutual support, traditions, attachment and acceptance, and many of these characteristics play an important role in what draws and keeps an individual involved in an organization. The organization in question could be a place of work, worship or a community group. When viewed through this lens, I believe it becomes clear that colleagues as a family could be a viable proposition for select scenarios.

A professional sports team is a good analogy, too, for businesses. Successful sports teams are well-oiled machines with clear goals, a power structure, elaborate plans and tactics where trust and relationships between teammates matter. That said, many (but not all) sports teams call themselves a family because the kind of bonds that drive success in a sports team bears a remarkable resemblance to the camaraderie required for success at work or for the emotional security that family can provide.

The Role Of Business Leaders In Shaping Employee Work-Life

While it is prudent to not make unfounded assumptions that every employee should consider their work colleagues as family, this does not preclude organizations from nurturing bonds with their teams that both parties may consider akin to family. Before we unwind this thread, let us examine the role of work in people’s lives and the role of business leaders in shaping the work-life of their employees.

As business leaders, our success is undeniably a result of incredible work by our employees, while failures are usually something we own. That is the mantle we entrepreneurs take on when we set out to build something new. We give our teams a vision to build toward. We give our employees a platform to experiment without fear and to dare to accomplish in the hopes of solving tough problems and reaping rewards. The bonds that we build in that process are incredibly strong and can make or break our chances of success.

Outcomes Matter More Than Labels

From my experience as a CEO and cofounder, within my company, workplace culture is one of the biggest sources of our success and ability to grow and thrive. As a tightly-knit small organization, it would hardly be a misnomer to call our team part of my family; and most importantly, the feeling is mutual with much of our staff. More than a quarter of our employees have been with us for more than 10 years, and some of them have come back to join us after stints elsewhere.

Different employees have different factors that motivate them to excel in their roles. For some, it could be money; for others, it could be loyalty. For many, it is professional pride. Many employees relish the growth that comes from a group of dynamic, challenging colleagues, as well as the sense of purpose that doing good can deliver.

A good leader must be able to harness and cultivate these various motivating factors and build the team ethos to ensure that everyone pulls together in the same direction to deliver success. The label we use to describe the bonds between a business and its team is inconsequential — whether we liken it to a family or a sports team. The label should fit the size and culture of the organization and demonstrate that the organization cares for them, inviting them to work together to achieve greatness.

The idea of “chosen family” — a term that originated in the LGBTQ+ community — that adds to or in some cases replaces one’s biological family also has relevance here. Extending how “family” is defined can lead to a growing network of support that can be important in a world where many of us need additional support because we live away from our families, are estranged or feel socially isolated. Caring for a colleague who lives alone and has just undergone surgery or attending graduation ceremonies for educational milestones of colleagues’ children, these are just some examples of support that members of my company’s family have provided one another, and we are incredibly proud that our staff feels this way about each other. You can work to create a culture such as this, too. 

At the end of the day, it comes down to each individual employee, and not us as business leaders, to characterize personal comfort levels with their employer and team and whether they want to consider them family or peers like a sports team. As business leaders, our role is to strive to make our organizations worthy of being considered at par with one’s own family but set the labels aside.


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