Family Dynamics: Mafia or Waltons?

4 Apr

“I just wish our company operated more like a family.”

I’ve been hearing this response a lot lately.  At first, it brings to mind thoughts of the Mafia.  Because that’s just the way I think.  But I assume most people are envisioning a Waltons setting – a loving family peacefully gathered around the table sharing their lives.

Both images are correct, in my limited opinion.  (And this comes from someone who has a relatively stable, happy, normal family.  Any bets on how long before my parents read this and comment on my use of the word relatively? They may live to regret ever teaching me how to write…)

When asked to describe family, this is usually what I say:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Family is the most rewarding, enriching, infuriating and exasperating part of life.

A loving family is a wonderful thing.  I feel saddened on a daily basis when I learn about those who have never experienced the security, stability, and safety found in a good family.  I can understand how companies want to operate this way.  Who doesn’t want to work for a company where you feel at home?  Where you feel homesick when you’re away?  Where you can tease and play with coworkers like they are siblings? Where you can gather around a table and make unanimous decisions after rationally discussing various viewpoints.  Where you trust those in leadership above you because “Father Knows Best” and “Mother is Never Wrong.” Where you can go separate ways knowing that others have your backs and will always listen and help when you call in distress?  Where you have the wisdom of the generations and the energy of the youth all in one room?

Family is good stuff.

But family, even loving family, is also tough.  There’s drama.  Being intimately involved in the details of people’s lives means you know about the drama. There are communication issues and petty jealousies and hurtful remarks and careless criticisms and alliances and attacks and it all matters a whole lot more because you’re supposed to be on the same team, you’re supposed to be more loyal to these people than to anyone else,  and you’re kinda stuck on the same team for life.

And that’s why companies can’t and shouldn’t attempt to “be like family.”  Leave the personal details at home or save them to share with a close coworker over lunch.  Acknowledge that you  have not signed a company contract in blood – you are not necessarily on the same team with these people for life.  Understand that, unlike family, you were not raised in the same way and your worldview won’t necessarily match.  Be intelligent enough to know when to share and when to be silent.

If you are a leader, do not take it personally if some teams seem to be having multiple Waltons moments.  They gather in conference rooms filled with easy laughter and exit with wide grins and pats on the back.  And then you look at your own team which seems engaged in guerilla or trench warfare, or a vicious game of Survivor.  Alliances are made and traded.  Attacks are cunning and swift.

One day, it may be the best of times.
The next day, it may be the worst.

There is an ebb and flow to interpersonal dynamics.  Work towards the middle.  Don’t set yourself up for failure with too high expectations.  Don’t set your team up for failure by having no expectations.  Don’t assume that the Walton’s image is ideal.  A nice meal (or a nice meeting) without people speaking up and challenging the status quo is just a nice meal (or a nice meeting).  Nice doesn’t clear the way for innovation and forward-progress.  Then again, the weapon in a violin case usually discourages forward-progress, too.

Family is the most rewarding, enriching, infuriating and exasperating part of life. Both in home and work life, let’s make sure the rewarding and enriching always rises above the infuriating and exasperating.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And often simultaneously.

(If you don’t believe me, try being a Phillies and a Red Sox fan right now. As the Godfather would say: “Sox, you can start acting like men now!”)





4 Responses to “Family Dynamics: Mafia or Waltons?”

  1. David Zelie April 4, 2011 at 2:34 pm #


    Your Dad

  2. ezelie April 4, 2011 at 2:56 pm #


    Your Daughter

  3. Susan Zelie April 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm #


    Your Mom

  4. Meg April 4, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    How about neighborly, ha ha….

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