There’s No “Family” in Team

There’s no “I” in team! That’s what “they” say anyway. It’s also quite true.

The opposite of that is also true. There is no “family” in team.

This is a good thing. No wait, it’s a great thing!

Let me explain.

There are different types of groups that exist and those groups each have their own norms and behaviors specific to them.

Family is a group of people related to each other by birth, marriage or adoption. This is the first group we are exposed to when we are born. For most, this is the group that is instrumental in our growth. This is where most people find belonging and community. We often share culture, values, and shared experiences. We also learn about norms and behaviors for engaging in communication, respect, conflict and other social skills. For most, you are part of this group for your entire life.

Studies show that time spent with family is significantly associated with life satisfaction (in healthy and positive families). Families can also be a source of trauma for some people in unhealthy family dynamics.

You do not share these same characteristics with the people you work with, so you are not a family (unless you work with your kin).

Teams are another type of group. A team is a group of people with a shared goal or task to complete. That is why the group exists. Purpose is an important aspect that we have to remember. It is worth noting that not all groups are teams though. There are times when a family can also be a team.

Where we got it wrong was attempting to label a team as a family. Leaders and organizations push this “feel good” concept to create a sense of connection in the group to gain buy-in and commitment. They are trying to create an environment of unity and belonging. They tell you to “bring your full self to work” as a way to encourage authenticity.

The road is paved to Hell with good intentions and this certainly put many organizational and team cultures on that road.

This push to call your team a family is actually a misguided attempt to identify the group as something else: a cohesive team.

We cannot impose the norms and behaviors of one group onto another and expect that they will function the same.

I am certified in “The 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team“, a training built on the book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team” written by Patrick Lencioni. I have worked with many teams and leadership groups on this concept. I spent a lot of time learning about groups in school as well.

A cohesive team tends to embody five key behaviors: Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability and Results.

The goal here is to create a team that can create vulnerable-based trust, engage in healthy conflict, commit to decisions, hold each other accountable, and achieve results. When a team is able to establish these behaviors, they are able to effectively work together as a cohesive team to achieve their results or goals.

It also takes time for teams to move through the Stages of Group Development as a team (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning). Pushing a “family” ideology does not help or speed up the transition to Norming or Performing. Teams can have independence and interdependence without being a family.

When we call a team “family”, we create confusion on how folks are supposed to show up at work. Personal and professionals boundaries blur. Employees may feel like they have to prioritize their work when they are asked to go “above and beyond” for their “family”. That usually comes at the cost of their actual family. They may be asked to make sacrifices that are harmful to them. People may feel pressured into having to care more than they really want to. All of this leads to burnout and poor mental health outcomes.

Some people don’t view their teams as family and so it can feel fake and forced when this is forced onto them. Some people just show up to work to collect a paycheck. That’s okay! There is nothing wrong with that.

Even though we really want people to be their “full self” at work, the truth is that is impossible. We get to be who we are around our family. We all have things that we just couldn’t share at work without some kind of repercussions.

Ultimately, family is not production based. Family doesn’t put you on a performance plan or fire you from the family.

Family doesn’t have HR reps or leaders focused on protecting the business over the person. You don’t get yearly performance reviews. If you struggle financially, it’s family who is going to help you out, not work.

Family is the group that is always there when things get hard…like getting fired from your “family”.

The reality is you can be easily replaced at work. A much harsher reality is that you cannot be replaced in your family. If you were to die today, your family will be crushed and will be the ones who hold you in their memories and hearts.

Look, people don’t want a fake family at work. They just want clear expectations, fair compensation and to be able to do their job without unnecessary stress.

Instead of using “family” as a blanket term to create cohesion, commit to focusing on our team dynamics regularly through team building, being open and receptive to feedback and prioritizing relationships over tasks.

Creating context around relationships helps create healthy boundaries and clear expectations of what it means to be in that relationship. Boundaries let your team and leader know what you are willing to accept and not accept as an employee. If I am your leader or teammate, we can work within the context of our relationship. Leaders can hold employees accountable to the role expectations and employees can hold their leaders accountable to the same.

Does that mean you shouldn’t care about the people you work with? Not at all. It is important to form genuine relationships (not necessarily friendships) through vulnerability and trust with your team because when you have that, you can accomplish a lot more together and have a good time doing it, especially when you are there 40+ hours a week.

I leave you with this TedTalk by Gloria Chan Packer on this topic:


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