Since people working together tend to replicate family structures and dynamics, employers should be aware that employees will place a family lens on their interactions with others. The most common version of this is how employees will see supervisors as parent figures and colleagues as siblings.
One branch of psychology, Transactional Analysis, captures how people relate to one another, especially when the relationship has a power differential. From the transactional perspective, people can relate from one of three positions: parent, child, or adult. Generally, two equal people interact on an adult to adult basis. And this is what you want in the work environment. But when there is a supervisor-supervisee relationship, which has a power/hierarchical differential, the interaction can turn parent to child.
Parent/child interactions between two adults at work are prone to occur, and they are problematic. The child position is one down, demeaning, and less productive. The parent position puts needless responsibility on the supervision to control and monitor the child-like employee. This kind of relationship does not foster autonomy and mastery of the employee and stifles creativity.
One example of this occurred while I was consulting to several teams in an organization. One team had its leader leave and another promoted from within the group. The team seemed to suddenly freeze up, become less productive, and begin reacting to one another.
Through discussion, some team members could voice their jealousy that a peer had been promoted. Others could feel the resentment that a colleague was “now telling me what to do.” There were other comments, like “why does she suddenly know more than me?” The new supervisor leader at first was dumbfounded; after all, she had done nothing wrong.
With a little work the group identified its envy and fear of control by a (former) sibling. It became an opportunity for the team to reaffirm its adult to adult collegial working preference. The new supervisor was able to reach out, support everyone’s importance to the mission, and defuse the negative family projection.
The tendency for employees to see the work environment through a family lens is not a problem. It just needs to be understood and utilized for employee satisfaction and productivity.
Tom DeMaio, PhD
Where do you spend most of your time outside the home? Obviously it is at work. Well, it is not just a job, and certainly not just an adventure, but it might be a place you would like to enjoy, be comfortable, and maybe even feel like it is your second home. People naturally prefer a family-like atmosphere at work. And it is achievable.
Everyone at work has multiple reasons for being there. While people need the job to provide a living wage, they want more. They want purpose. A purpose can be different things, like personal accomplishment, corporate success, selling better food, or providing critical medical care. People want to accomplish something that matters.
The organization takes care of its employees and they take care of it. This ends up feeling a lot like family, where we are in it together, need to help one another, and have the common good at heart.
There are many ways to build that family-like feeling in your organization. You build it by encouraging it, by the right attitude, and by the little things people interpret as family.
• Set up teams where workers participate in decision-making and responsibility for their outcomes. Workers should be a part of designing the success of the organization.
• Engage employees by soliciting their ideas and feedback.
• Foster a sense of group cohesion and togetherness through identity, shared mission, mutual dependence. Do this conceptually and through little things like company shirts, a logo, and community projects. Provide a shared meal for them once in a while.
• Make sure every supervisor listens to employee concerns. Make sure every supervisor discusses the employees’ needs.
• Provide opportunities for growth and development.
• Link organizational success to personal employee success. Acknowledge contributions to the organization.
• Encourage workers to get to know each other through informal and formal means.
• Communicate, communicate, communicate. Share plans, solicit input, be as open as possible.
Building a family-like atmosphere is not overly complicated. And there are many models and ideas in other organizations about how it can be done successfully. Mostly you have to decide that it is a valuable part of maximizing the satisfaction and productivity of your staff.
Tom DeMaio, PhD
Family-like environments in the work setting help employees perform at their best. They produce emotionally safe and secure settings for people to work together for the success of the organization.
Some years ago I was asked to consult with a team of nurses on one hospital floor. A year prior to bringing me in the hospital had reorganized and combined two groups of nurses. Unfortunately these nurses still operated as two separate entities: members of the original groups hung out together, complained about each other, and did not appropriately share responsibility for patient care on the floor.
When I met with the group the nurses explained that they had a long history with their respective original groups and that they had not been happy about the combining. There was nothing specific, just us and them. The unit manager was flabbergasted by the behavior of the nurses.
In the process of a larger team meeting the nurses agreed that they were less effective operating as two teams on the unit. In fact they were at a loss to explain the failure to come together. With my help they were able to see the external forces that subtlety kept them apart (three shifts, no deliberate plan to join them, a busy schedule, and other factors). All of them understood that it had taken years to gain the original trust and friendship with one another.
Agreeing that continuing as two teams was not right, the group decided it was time to come together. I expressed my confidence that, with deliberate forethought, they could make a plan that would work. Indeed, the ideas began immediately landing on my flip chart. They arranged for meals together on all three shifts so that team members could talk and share histories. The unit manager suggested and found resources for a video about the unit (“Our Team on 3D”). There were other ideas, and most importantly, there was a commitment.
Over the next several months I heard of their success pulling together. The unit manage reported that the team improved their sharing of responsibilities, reduced arguments, and generally showed much more happiness at work. She felt patient care had improved significantly. I also knew because they gave my name to other nursing units in the hospital and I could literally visit to see their success.
Tom DeMaio, PhD