Sunday, March 14, 2010




A Family Systems Approach to Managing Workplace Dynamics

by Bob Vance BPh LBSW CPC


Business owners and employees in almost any size of company can be heard saying that their workplace is “like a family”. I’d like to take a closer look at what that means.

As a coach who has worked primarily in life, couples and family coaching I understand that being “like a family” can have any number of meanings and associations for any number of people. So when I hear someone say their workplace is like a family, I am unlikely to assume that it means that the company runs like a well-tuned conflict free clock in which every employee always acts as highly functioning, trusting and trusted gear in the machine of the company’s main purpose, productivity.

The fact is I have never met two families that are the same. Families, like people, are highly individuated. Each is its own organism. Each invents and generates its own culture. This is the family’s strength and also its weakness. The same can be said of work groups, whether those in a workplace recognize the workings of its inter relationships and communication dynamics as “like a family” or not.

The fact is that all people are informed, indoctrinated really, from the earliest ages, about how to function in a group by the position they took and the nature of their experience in their own family. These lessons are often unconsciously employed in every group setting the person finds themselves in. For good or ill.

Perhaps we can step outside of this premise for a bit for a look at how this plays out in your life. To do this, I would like to ask several questions to illustrate it.

1. When was the first time you understood your family was different from others’? Can you describe a situation in which that difference was made very clear to you?

2. How would you describe how your family is different from others you have observed?

3. Does that difference impact how you behave in groups? At work?

4. If you said yes, how specifically does it impact your behavior at work?

5. If you said no, how have you managed to keep your family out of the way you function in groups and at work?

6. Do you work hard to stay “professional” in spite of your feelings at work? Are you always successful? When you are less than successful what usually has occurred? Do you think your family has anything to do with this?

Whatever your answers to these questions are, I think I can fairly anticipate that most people, even with a modest amount of self reflection, can make the connections between how they function in their workplace and how they function in their family. And it doesn’t really matter if you define your family experience as “good” or “dysfunctional”.

For one thing I’d like to toss out the word “dysfunctional” when referring to families and even to work groups. The fact is, in most cases, individuals and family-sized groups are never so much dysfunctional as they are functioning according to the situations they face and the resources they have to succeed, or merely survive, in those situations.

Even seriously maladaptive individual or group behavior often is adopted in order to get through a difficult situation or one in which the only tools are the wrong tools. But those seriously maladaptive systems of behavior are rare, and in a work place are generally self-limiting. The nature of larger economics and productivity standards do not generally allow for serious dysfunction to persist for long, at least in modern companies that are progressive in how they see and relate to their employees as opposed to older business models that employed a more despotic system of oversight and remuneration.

Still, this family dynamic in workplace communication and relationships can be troubling, even for, or perhaps most especially for, progressive managers and small business owner/managers who wish to promote and sustain an overall positive workplace atmosphere where employees can be productive, feel meaningfully useful, and be as autonomous as possible. How can these family-of-origin issues be managed in the workplace when even people who come from the same family “culture” often have difficulties communicating effectively and putting aside assumptions and grudges based in a family history that has become ingrained and seemingly impossible to set aside.

As a well-meaning and empathic, effective, manager, how does one facilitate effective, open and positive problem-solving at a meeting where not only one family system is present, but the number of families present equals the number of people who are sitting around the table?

If, as a manager or owner of a small business you have ever felt like you’ve found yourself in charge of a United Nations meeting in which you’ve forgotten to hire translators, this is the reason why: each family DOES represent a different culture, even a different language of sorts.

So take deep breath. No one wants to make you a family coach or therapist in order to effectively manage the group dynamics in your company. No one is perfect, not even you or your company. You can’t expect to be able to solve and or mitigate all the communication-based ills in your work group or company. You lead, you don’t father or mother…. in spite of the fact that leading often borrows from fathering and mothering.

In fact, being the leader, and all that the role involves and how it is a part of the nature of the group your are leading, automatically takes you out of the running as the person most likely to succeed in facilitating a process of self-awareness and change in the way the systems of your workplace communication work and don’t work.

Just as a husband or wife, or a mother or father, would not likely be the best choice to observe, interpret, and facilitate a process of change in a family… would not ultimately be successful as a coach, counselor or therapist for their own family… it is unlikely that without some outside assistance changes in workplace communications and relationship dynamics are not likely to be successful with the boss in the role of facilitator, for reasons that I think are obvious.

Besides, if we take as truth the idea that being aware of the systemic nature of the problem is halfway to its solution, we must also place the lion’s share of the responsibility for any change that is needed on every cog and gear in the machine of the workplace. Every employee must become familiar with how bringing their family to the table effects their contribution before any change can be attempted. Ultimately this familiarity with the manner that one communicates and how it interfaces with the communications systems of others is the responsibility of each employee.

A leader, supervisor or owner can only require that those in his or her employ do that work and give each employee the resources to use to pursue that goal. So while you, as the leader, are embarking on the task of self-reflection and revising how you function in your role, so can your employees be involved in the same pursuit, facilitated by a hired coach or consultant you trust.

There is generally, and for good reasons, some trepidation about entering into this kind of process in a company that may have problematic communication and relationship dynamics but functions in the “good enough” category in these areas. Sure, excellent employees might inexplicably leave or have a “blow up” quite regularly, or potentially serious mistakes due to poor communication might routinely, and thankfully, be circumvented at the last minute, but your efforts up to now have not yielded much change, often seem to make small incremental motion forward only to fall back into old patterns, so you have settled into accepting what seems to be inevitable.

But is it?

Some might ask “Are we to be in the business of family therapy in the workplace?” and to them I might offer reassurance by saying that therapy is the last thing that should happen, and if it starts to look like that after a coach or consultant has been hired to help improve communication and relationship dynamics, it might be best to bow out as quickly as possible.


The idea we are pursuing here is to put each person in your, including you as the leader, in charge of their own self reflection and change, to share personal information only when it is relevant and helps the process and not outside of the parameters of appropriate personal revelation set early and restated often during the process. This is not about making everyone happy with their family, but about helping you and your employees identify and manage how their family dynamics prevent and/or help them travel toward excellence in the workplace. This is about making the road to excellence in quality and productivity as free of communication and professional relationship potholes and detours, or unexpected washouts and traffic jams, as possible.


4 comments:

irisarensonfuller said...

This article is superlative to me, full of really good insights about family and workplace functioning and I know will be helpful to a lot of people and the questions are very useful for anyone to ask of him or herself.

Thanks for this!
I would love to think of a way to make this article available to more people. Any ideas? I will link to it in a few places right now.

Bob Vance said...

I am not sure numbers of people who have access translate into productivity. That is: I think it is more the kind of people who read it than the numbers. I have submitted it to Ezine and posted it on Twitter. I'm open to other ideas and feeel quite open about how other people reporduce it as long as I am credited

As usual I am happy that youremain a faithful reader and friend. Your opinion really counts for me.

Ruth Z Deming said...

i also enjoyed the article, bob, as found on iris's blog. it's a compliment to hear that one's job is like family. esp. important is to make any outsiders in that organization - people who are a little different - to be accepted into the family. that's what we excel at in my nonprofit org, a support group for folks with mood disorders and their family members. someone tonite said to our whole group, when i find you, it was like coming home! thanks for a great post, bob.

Bob Vance said...

Thanks Ruth. It sounds like your group is like a GOOD family... for many people the word has different connotations and more ambivalence... not bad as such, just complicated. Most families are complicated. In organizations that people feel they can 'come home' to it is often after feeling they could not 'come home' or be at home in others, including their family of origin. I salute you in that you have put together a more gratifying family of choice for people who benefit from that.