Your Team Isn’t Family; Create Workplace Belonging Instead

I get annoyed when I hear leaders say, “engagement and purpose aren’t a problem here, we treat everyone like family.”

Most of the time, a family dynamic at work is code for operating in a less formal way, where people should believe they are as important as profit.

But often, once there are financial pressures or “changes in direction” that lead to downsizing or temporary layoffs, all of a sudden, certain people aren’t considered to be family anymore.

We use family language as a communication shortcut. When leaders say, “we want to be able to rely on each other, just like a family,” it’s meant to convey that we want people to put work obligations ahead of their true family. “We are here for each other, just like family … which means I’ll need you to work late on short notice.” Or we ask people to forgive terrible behaviour because “as a family, we need to move past this.”

It’s a metaphor that is unfair, inconsistent, and not creating the outcomes leaders expect.

The Problem With Blurring The Boundaries Between Work and Life

Describing your team or company as a family blurs the line between professional and personal. It’s implied that you’re asking people to go above and beyond, or expecting more loyalty than is appropriate.

In some cases, it can stop people from raising concerns because they worry about the repercussions of being honest.

Hmm, almost like a family.

But, the big difference is, unlike avoiding your Mom’s phone calls, we can’t avoid issues or tension at work. We need the skills to work through tension and solve issues.

“Like a family” also implies a lifelong bond and ignores the fact that work is a transaction, something we evaluate and opt into (and can also opt out of if needed). Work is something we opt into, bound by contracts and defined by the exchange of services for compensation. It’s a choice, complete with rules and expectations that are distinctly transactional.

How can we encourage commitment at work without trying to play the “just like a family” card?

Instead, Create Belonging At Work

There are lots of definitions; I think of belonging as feeling heard, valued, respected and not judged — qualities that require intentional effort and courage from leaders.

As research from Deloitte highlights, belonging is what 93% of leaders believe is a key driver of organizational performance in today’s workplaces.

It takes active work from leaders to create environments that support belonging, but it’s critical to the success of the team. Without it, team members are holding back, not comfortable sharing their ideas, questioning the status quo, and other actions that will have a considerable impact on the future success of the team.

Belonging is one of the building blocks of agency—the ability to have input into how we complete our work, something workplace OD expert and psychotherapist Angie Dairou considers to be critical for success at work in the next decade. Work will be changing too rapidly for leaders to micromanage their way through it; they’ll need team members to step into greater levels of ownership, which only comes if they feel they belong.

What This Means For Leaders

If you need to let go of the family shorthand, there are a few ways to still connect with your team in a meaningful way that helps support and encourage them to bring their highest levels of dedication and commitment to the work you’re doing together.

  1. Provide clarity. Some leaders micromanage because they are continually figuring out the right priorities and focus on the fly. They haven’t paused to identify what is important in the coming weeks and months. Instead, take time to help your team see the connections between their work, the expectations for the team, and how it all connects to the overarching corporate goals and mission.
  2. Ask great questions. Understanding how to coach your team, by asking great questions and not micromanaging, will help them find their answers, something that creates a higher level of engagement and interest. And frankly, removes the pressure for you to always feel you have to have the answers.
  3. Get to know your team as people; let them bring their whole life to work.The sooner we stop thinking about people as “resources” who can leave their messy lives at the door and who shouldn’t have issues that complicate their 9-to-5 responsibilities, the closer we’ll get to creating environments where people can dedicate their best efforts. Getting to know your team as unique individuals who are motivated differently, with a wide range of interests and priorities means you’ll allow them to feel more that they belong and don’t have to use up cognitive energy hiding their true selves.


Consider taking some time to reflect on your thoughts about belonging:

  • What are your beliefs about belonging at work?
  • Can you recall a moment when you felt a strong sense of belonging within your team? What impact did this have on how you interacted with them?
  • What behaviours are needed from leaders to foster a sense of belonging? Which of those behaviours are strengths for you? Which ones are harder?

If you want to hear more from Angie Dairou, listen to episode 52 on the Evolve podcast, where we dig into it in detail. (You can listen to the Evolve podcast on your favourite podcast app, or check it out here.)

Picture of Carolyn Swora

Carolyn Swora

Carolyn is a leadership consultant, team coach, certified Dare To Lead™ facilitator, and two-time bestselling author. Her most recent book, Evolve: The Path to Trauma-Informed Leadership, brings new focus to an often ignored, yet critical leadership component: the nervous system. In her work with organizations, from phama to non-profits, Carolyn focuses on driving change through leadership focused on compassion and humility.

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