What About Your Work Family?

What comes to mind when we think about our immediate family? For most of us, family means those we spend a great deal of time with. They are our last line of defense. The people we turn to when we are vulnerable, need support and empathy, and can team with us to get our family goals accomplished.  They welcome our strengths and work with us to address our flaws. A family is also the place where we show our leadership as fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. We understand that the goal is for our family to win as a unit. We try to love and care for our whole family and not pick favorites that are more like us. We try to get to know them and find out which interpersonal strategies are better placed to work with each family member. We do it because we have a mental model that says my family is my source of identity, validation, and fulfillment.

Many leaders draw a solid line between how they regard their immediate family versus their work family. On average we spend approximately 75% of our waking lives with our work family. Our professional success is, to a large extent, dependent on our ability to navigate productive and positive relationships with them.

Like our immediate family, we need a group of people at work who have our backs and will provide us honest and helpful feedback. Our family feels empowered to do so because the feedback is not meant to be mean or to put us down but given because they care and want to see us prosper. The origin of their feedback comes from the primitive part of the brain, the part of their body where pure emotions are generated. We listen for their intent and their message in its purest form, sometimes coming across as awkward and unpolished. We thank our family for providing us the feedback and work with them with equanimity on the delivery of the message.

But how can we get there?  How can we help infuse a family culture in our team? Here are some suggestions based on my work with leaders who have proven it is possible:

  1. Carry a mindset of goodwill and disqualify members by exception.
    Most of us want to work on a winning team where the members invest in the success of development of others on their team. Connecting, being cared for, and feeling like we belong is a basic human need at home and at work. When you start with trust and goodwill you usually get back engagement and support.


  1. Demonstrate your family mindset through your actions.
    How aware are you of the dinner conversations regarding your organization when your team members are at home? To what extent are you aware of their anxieties, aspirations, needs, and personal styles and preferences? At home, these would be minimum requirements for establishing a trusting and caring relationship. You probably would not be pleased if your family preferred to share these emotions with others and not you. What is your preference at work? Great leaders connect with team members in deep and meaningful ways so as to inspire and motivate them. Their team feels invited to engage and interact with them.


  1. Seek input and surrender to your vulnerabilities.
    Our home family would withdraw from us if we were free to tell them what they should be doing but never asked their advice or probed for how they felt. Or, if we showed up as the superhero who has no faults, is self-sufficient, and only involved them in areas where we felt they had unique expertise. What would be the reaction if we told our spouse they are not qualified to provide feedback on our work lives? Or, if we told our children they are not old enough to have a view on the remodeling of their house? What makes us think that the people in our teams would react differently?


  1. Speak the “we” language.
    When our family sees that we are proud of them and speak as a unit they get energized and feel included. They sense that they are part of our long-range plans and not there to just fill a temporary need. They start to see their welfare and ours aligned and know that at the right moment they will be recognized (another foundational human emotion and need).


  1. Enable and equip your family.
    Sometimes our families need guidance, training, outside expertise, and experiences. We provide personal advice and feedback, summer camps, schools, therapists/family counselors, piano teachers, sports coaches, etc. Often, not being fully skilled is confused with lack of motivation or intent. However, it may well be that our families will show their highest selves through the learning experiences we provide them.


  1. Work through the inertia and complacency.
    When we initiate new experiences and learning at home with our families, it is not unusual to get pushback or resistance. Convincing your spouse to enroll one of your children in summer math camp versus the usual “fun camp” might require patience, understanding, care, and creating a new vision. In addition, once a new routine is started, it takes process, discipline, and resilience to ensure that it will be sustained. Keeping to an agreed spending allowance for your children will require repeated reinforcement in the face of skilled operators who know how to pull at your heartstrings. The same is true at work.


Questions for Online Conversation

  • How often do you think of your team at work as part of your family? If seldom or never, what is in the way of it?
  • What are some principles and ideas that you can leverage from your home family to your work team?
  • How would you describe your work team to your family and vice versa?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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