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The Unforeseen Dangers of a 'Family Atmosphere' in Your Business

Jun 21, 2023

If you walk into a business and they say they're like a family run.  Don't get me wrong, it's a really nice sentiment.  But when I go in as a company growth coach and one of the team members tells me, "Oh, we're like a family here",  my antennas go up, because I know they have problems they don't even know about.  False boundaries, lack of accountability, unmet goals, unclear expectations, very few documented or even followed processes, and oftentimes there's somebody working there that shouldn't be working there. And one thing I can guarantee is a miserable owner. 

If you can relate with any of these symptoms of a “family atmosphere” in your business, I would love to hear some of your comments. Also, if you have a question, just comment below and I'll respond as quickly as I can.

When I was in the military, one thing I observed and I have never forgotten it. When the Marines start out, in the enlisted ranks, you have a private, a private first class, a lance corporal, corporal, and it goes on. What happens is when they work together and they go out and party together and they have a lot of experiences, they know each other like family. They're like brothers. And so when they go up the ranks and when they hit the noncommissioned officer rank of sergeant, they'll send the new sergeants off to a training and then when they come back, they don't go back to their unit. The reason is it's like your little brother telling you what to do because they have been out together, they have seen more things. They've seen you looking stupid, acting stupid, doing stupid stuff, and then all of a sudden you come in there and tell them what to do. It doesn't work out.

And that's the same way at a company when the boundaries aren't real clear. Usually you have this all for one and one for all attitude. And again, that can be great. But when you're really trying to get things done, people can step on your toes. Feelings get hurt, and too often you can't even ask someone to do something because you're afraid their feelings are going to get hurt. And worse, their feelings do get hurt because it's not your place to be telling them what to do. In a healthy, well-run company, there has to be a culture of accountability where everyone knows who is in charge, and there's just no question. In a family, everybody's in charge and nobody's in charge. So it becomes a madhouse.

There are also well-established boundaries and a lot of family-owned companies and companies that feel like they're family, it's this one for all and all for one attitude. And although that is great, it gets in the way of creating expertise because I'm going to come in and do whatever it takes, so I don't even think about your feelings or whatever your actual roles or responsibilities are. And so we step on each other's toes.

There's also order the opposite of order is chaos, and that's what you find in most family environments. But in business you need a set of processes that are well documented and followed by everyone, and you need to clearly define roles. This kind of goes back to that one for all and all for one. In a family, you're willing to do whatever it takes and that's great, but in a company I need to know exactly who does what and I want to let them do it so it creates this well-oiled machine instead of a bunch of individual people just doing everything it takes.

We're like a family. I know it sounds nice and it feels good, but if you keep hearing it, you're either miserable or you're going to be miserable. Here's why you can't just go cold turkey and say, Now we're not a family anymore. You have to put a lot of thought into this because even though you are the authority, people view you as a family member.

And when you just do something cold turkey, it's going to hurt feelings, productivity's going to go down, morale is going to shoot down and you are probably going to be more miserable. It will get better, but I think we need to take a methodical, strategic approach to kind of professionalizing the business.

If you need help transforming your business that feels like a family, into a company that is professionalized,
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