I play soccer on Sundays. At my age, this entails 90 minutes of running around with my head cut off, trying not to get hurt or collapse from exhaustion. Still, I enjoy it.
Sometimes, my daughters come to the games with me. They sit on the sidelines with the pretext of cheering me on, but spend most of the time playing with the kids of other players or gulping down the crackers, cereal bars, strawberries and whatever other snack I packed to keep them from complaining they were hungry ten minutes into the game.
I look over on the sidelines regularly to see how they were doing. Usually, they are just fine. But this once, my oldest and my youngest were gone. I shouted to the middle child, asking where they were. She said they had gone to the bathroom (a Port-o-potty near the parking lot). They returned a few minutes later, the younger one crying because she had wet her pants. A rarity at her age, but still, it happens.
I took a substitution and got off the field. I took the crying girl in my arms. She was soaked through. Usually, a hug from dad helps, but in this case, she was inconsolable. I called my wife at home and explained. Dutifully, she arrived soon after with a change of clothes, and took our daughter home. The other girls were as helpful as possible. They didn’t mock her or tease her about this embarrassing incident. That is the best of what family is. Whether you lose your job, crash the car, fail a test or wet your pants, they stick by you and help you the best they can.
All too often, I hear employers and employees alike describe their workplace as being like a family. Some companies even celebrate it. It makes me cringe. Workplaces shouldn’t be fostering family. They should be fostering teams.
Workplaces should be like the people I play soccer with. I usually loathe sports analogies, but in this case, it makes sense. My team gets together for a set amount of time, and work together for a couple of simple, common goals – to play well, to put the ball in the other team’s goal, to stop the other team from scoring on us. Win or lose, when the ref blows the final whistle, we shake hands with teammates and opponents alike, and say “good game”.
Workplaces also get together for a set period of time to achieve a few simple common goals – build market share, serve customers, maximize profit, etc. And at the end of the day, or week, or project deadline, we are done, we go home, “Good Game”.
With families, the goals are constantly shifting and changing. Different members may be working towards different ends. And, unlike a soccer game, or work, it’s never over. Barring some huge falling out, family will always be family. Someone can’t easily quit, and it’s hard to fire someone. Ask anyone with an adult child who won’t move out on his own.
Employees who want work to be a family seek the unconditional love inherent with strong families. However, the employer-employee relationship is all about conditions. Employees give their skills, knowledge and abilities to an employer. The employer gives the employees pay and benefits. If the skills, knowledge and abilities are no longer needed by the employer, or if the employer cannot provide adequate pay and benefits, the relationship ends.
Strong families are committed to each other without any such conditions placed on the relationship. That is why some employers like to have their employees think of the workplace of family. They then get the commitment without having to give any sort of compensation. Show me an organization that touts its family atmosphere and I’ll show you one with lousy pay and benefits.
Up to this point, I’ve been talking about the ideal family. Families are rarely ideal. All too many are dysfunctional. Dad’s a workaholic, sister’s dating a stoner, mom never wanted kids in the first place, brother tries to hold everyone together even though he’s only thirteen. Workplaces that are like family are no different. They are rife with petty squabbles and people focused on personalities rather than performance. Crying and yelling are not uncommon. They have bosses unwilling or unable to have the tough conversations with underperforming workers. They rarely, if ever, fire anyone, forcing everyone else to work that much harder.
Is this what most people want in a workplace?
I care about my team mates, both at work and on the field. I have a responsibility to each and every one of them. But let me tell you, if you one of them wets his pants, don’t expect me to give him a hug.