Monday, May 18, 2009
A Business Is Not A Family
What's on my mind today is why so many businesses insist on referring to themselves as a "family".
In twenty working years, I have worked at a number of companies, from small education businesses to giants of retail. To varying degrees, all of them speak about the value of relationships.
Yes, relationships are good. I understand this. But can you really improve relationships by examining them? I think going metacognitive on relationships worsens them.
Some businesses say, "But we actually work on relationship here; we do something about it, not just talk about it."
I think the problem with this lies in perceptions.
When relationship building is done wrong, it reeks of ulterior motive - easily interpreted thusly when done at the work place. I have actually been around leaders who say they build relationship with employees so they can get them on their side - to do what the leader wants. You can argue these leaders' results, but one thing you cannot argue is that I fear them and do my best to keep them out of my life. I would guess there are others who share my sentiment.
Besides the perception of a shady motive, when a business leader strives to build relationship amongst employees, it is awkward because (1) there is a necessary degree of compatibility between people for relationship to develop, and (2) people skills are mostly not skills at all, but inherent talents.
Imagine trying to teach someone conversational timing - a vital tool in coming across graceful and comfortable around others, and a sound relationship-building ingredient. Like learning a musical instrument, your brain has to have a certain understanding of rhythm, a "knack", or you will never pick up on complex rhythmic nuances. That knack is a talent, and not everybody has it. I believe relationship building works the same way.
Have you noticed that the people who are the biggest proponents for workplace relationships are often the ones with whom you would never want to eat lunch? I would bet that the people who have good relationships don't spend much time talking about them or even consciously focusing on them. People skills - and the ability to cultivate good relationships - are hired, not built on company time.
Sometimes leaders are out of touch with their employees, and they try to 'lead' their staff into better relationships with speeches, books, and workplace activities.
But it's surface level. What a relationship actually needs to develop are commonalities and the initiative to get to know someone on our own time or on unstructured time. There is a huge difference in this versus relationship building in structured time. And it does not help that leaders are often scared reach out to employees on a personal level. Many leaders are great at administrative skills, strategizing, and running meetings, but are weak with their relational ability, or worse, feel employees should come to them, since they are the leader, after all. (Like a dad demanding that that child should the one to initiate relationship with him... "Junior needs to prove himself to me!")
What are some honest and intelligent businesses out there that put the focus on hiring and developing intelligence over relationship? I've found that those businesses that hire right - that hire based on intelligence for the role and good relational ability already in place - have very happy and high performing employees. Fortune's "Best Companies To Work For" is a fun read.
Oh, and can we stop the "we're one big family" talk at work? A family does not fire its children.