Mother, brother, sisters, and me

(Cross-posted to Applied Laziness. Look there for more.)

Every company is, in essence, an extended family. We have the parental figures, the sibling rivalries, and the uncle no one likes to talk about. We also have all of the emotional connections that people used to form only with family and neighbors. Some companies embrace this fact, creating an “Us against the world” mentality, or welcoming their new employees into “the Globalcorp family.” Other companies try to “keep things on a professional level,” maintaining that employment is nothing more than a fiscal contract to provide labor in return for wages, and it’s never personal.

The fact is, it’s impossible for work to not be personal. People are emotional creatures, instinctively seeking connections with everyone we meet. It is impossible to spend 8 (or more) hours per day with a group of people and not form a bond with them, which is why it is ludicrous to me to see managers and human resource professionals try to deny this basic fact: we are family.

50 years ago, companies still acted like families, with all of the positive and negative results that you would expect. Workers felt a sense of belonging, of commitment, of brotherhood with their employers and fellow employees. The overriding career goal was to find a company where you could spend your whole working life, working your way up through the ranks until it was time to take your gold watch and retire. This was a direct descendant of the family trades of the previous centuries, where the son either learned his father’s trade or apprenticed in another trade and likely married into his master’s family. There was both emotional and financial security in this model, and people mixed work and family much more freely than they do today.

Of course, not every family gets along, and the bitterest feuds are among blood relations. These same expectations for a stable career and a lifelong commitment to a corporate parent were the fuel behind the union riots and other violent management/labor clashes of the early and mid-1900s. Had the arrangement been merely a financial one, perhaps tempers wouldn’t have flared so brightly.

Recent trends of the last two decades -- job-hopping, a highly skilled technical work force, exaggerated boom/bust cycles in business -- have reduced the sense of family at work and have encouraged the notion that “it’s nothing personal.” Now we think that it’s best to go where the money is, exchanging one job or one work force for another when the price is right. While this attitude is financially convenient for both sides of the employment contract, I would argue that the hidden cost is much greater than the financial benefit.

Whether or not it is logical, people need to feel a sense of camaraderie with their fellow workers. They need to feel that they are working for something bigger than themselves, be it a greater cause or a larger group. They work harder and feel more satisfaction from their work when they see others benefiting from it. If you take that away from them, make it all about me, my job, my paycheck -- essentially reducing them to numbers on a balance sheet -- they quickly lose motivation and their work suffers.

It is considered common knowledge in HR circles that you can’t motivate someone with a paycheck. Money is a necessary part of the equation (a man’s got to eat), but it should be treated as a reward for work well done, not the reason for doing the work in the first place. People have even been willing to forgo their paychecks during tough times when they believed in their company. Why, then, do we so quickly reduce people to cost centers when times are tight? Why do we make it so easy for them to jump ship the moment that a slightly better offer comes along?

I believe that we need to recapture that sense of family in our workplaces. We need to stop trying to draw the line between “work” and “home,” as though there were some way to bifurcate our personalities into “Work Joe” and “Home Joe.” We need to take the same principles that we rely upon to build strong families and use them to build strong companies. If we do that, we can recapture that sense of dedication that leads to such great leaps in creativity and productivity. We can build an atmosphere where, even when things go wrong, everyone pulls together to make them right. We can harness all that energy that is currently being wasted in 8-, 10-, or 12-hour days and give people their lives back, without sacrificing excellence.

This isn’t a dream: I’ve seen it happen, albeit on a small scale. It is possible to build relationships and products at the same time, if we are willing to make the effort to hire the whole person, not just the skill set.

Unfortunately, this is no grass roots movement. The attitudes and practices that make this possible must start at the top and trickle down. Unless the leaders of a company are willing to also be the heads of the family, any mid-level effort at building the family/team will eventually be sabotaged by rapid growth, reorganization, layoffs, or just plain poor management. It has to be a family affair.

More to come…

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