Updated: Nov 14
We’ve all heard it: “our team is a family.” Organizations across every industry use this language. From non-profits to corporate teams, the idea that our working relationships should be as close-knit as our familial ones has become embedded into cultural norms—and even some of our mission statements.
But “The Corporate Family” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This news might be hard for some of you to hear: calling your work team a family is not a trauma-informed practice.
If you use family language at work, the chances are high that you’re setting your team up for re-traumatization. We don’t want that. So, what can we do about it?
First, we need to understand what being a family at work means. These nine reasons why your work team shouldn’t be a family will shed some light.
1 - A “family” culture at work is toxic
To put it simply, “family” culture at work is toxic. While this isn’t always the case, it is the norm.
In a family work culture, familial ideals like loyalty and dedication tend to be one-sided. The organizational leaders hope that lower-level employees become emotionally attached to the company. This is good for them because it reduces turnover and produces more dedicated employees.
But employees’ loyalty and dedication usually aren’t rewarded or reciprocated. In family work cultures, most organizations would still cut ties with employees if it helped them reach their bottom line.
Companies with family work cultures also tend to expect their employees to be self-sacrificial. Employees will go out of their way or cross their own boundaries by giving up time off, working late, or doing unpaid work because it’s “what’s best for the team.”
Ultimately, this mentality is not what’s best for the team—it’s what’s best for the organization’s bottom line.
2 - Boundaries with family members and coworkers differ—and that’s okay
Healthy boundaries are the cornerstone of any healthy relationship, and our boundaries differ with different people in our lives. That’s totally normal.
There are certain topics we may not feel comfortable discussing with certain people. There may be certain behaviors we expect or don’t expect from certain relationships. The specifics vary depending on individual needs and cultural norms, but we can think of hugging as one example.
Let’s say that Jillian hugs her sister every time they say hello or goodbye. It’s also very normal for them to exchange an “I love you.” If Jillian’s supervisor at work hugged her and said, “I love you,” that would be weird.
This is a silly example, but you get the idea. Our boundaries with our family members and our coworkers are different.
Following the same train of thought, we can consider how a family emergency isn’t the same as a work emergency. “Someone I love really needs my help right now” and “We’re going to miss a deadline at work” shouldn’t be treated with the same gravity.
But family work cultures can lead us to believe that these two scenarios are the same. Some family work cultures also take it a step further by turning the exception into the norm.
If you’re okay with working late to meet a deadline as a response to a “work emergency,” there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But, when there’s an “emergency” every week, it’s no longer an exception: it’s the norm.
3 - You shouldn’t be expected to share everything about your personal life at work
There is nothing wrong with opening up and being vulnerable with your colleagues or coworkers. In fact, this is how we develop meaningful professional relationships.
The problem arises when family work cultures pressure people into sharing more than they feel comfortable sharing.
Consider the trope of the dreaded holiday party, where extended family members poke and pry for personal information. No one wants to tolerate that at work, too.
It’s also not uncommon for personal information to become weaponized in toxic work cultures. When emotions run high, personal details and insights into our insecurities or struggles can become fodder for hurtful interactions. Ultimately, this breaks down trust and thwarts an organization’s trauma-informed efforts.
4 - Families tend to be dysfunctional.
Generally speaking, most families tend to have at least a dash of dysfunction thrown into the mix.
Universal precaution assumes that we all have some trauma, so we behave with the same level of precaution for everyone involved. When operating with universal precaution, we can also assume that some of that trauma comes from dysfunctional family systems.
There’s nothing wrong with coming from a dysfunctional family—many of us do. However, we don’t want to encourage dysfunction at work. We want to support healing. The best way to do that is to see our work relationships for what they are: professional relationships.
5 - Seeing colleagues as “family” can push us into dysfunction
Even if most of your organization is trauma-informed, using family language at work or having a family mentality can push people into dysfunction. Even just saying, “You remind me so much of my sibling/parent/child!” can open the door for reenactments where we take on the role of the victim, persecutor, or rescuer.
This is why I recommend that professionals avoid family work culture and instead use universal precaution.
6 - In a family culture, you’re probably the child
This is a difficult truth that many family work cultures don’t want to talk about. In a family work culture, someone is the parent, and someone is the child. The bad news? You’re probably the child.
The “work parents” will be the higher-ups who might rarely engage with all of their “work children.” Usually, family work cultures amplify unhealthy power dynamics. Employees, like children, tend to have fewer rights and less autonomy. And a because-I-said-so mentality can stifle freedom and creativity.
7 - Feedback can easily become personal
We all experience moments where we take something personally. It’s a common human experience, but it can be harmful.
When we keep work relationships professional, it’s easier to establish the mentality that feedback is constructive. Even then, it can be easy to take things personally.
But when we create a family work culture, it becomes a lot easier to take things personally. The dynamics of the relationship become different, so it becomes easier for insecurities to pop up. Instead of assuming the best in someone, you might wonder if they’re saying something to undermine you, being passive-aggressive, or hinting towards some level of resentment.
In a healthy, professional, trauma-informed space, there’s room to discuss these emotions directly with kindness, compassion, and understanding. In a family work culture, it’s much easier to fall into old patterns and take feedback personally.
8 - Professional relationships are rarely permanent
The expectations for our work relationships and our family relationships vary in many ways, including the duration of the relationship and the level of commitment. Working relationships are rarely permanent. Career changes such as getting a new job, promotions, terminations, and retirements are commonplace in professional settings, which means relationships are bound to change.
However, there are generally expectations that relationships between family members are more stable. In most relationships with parents, siblings, or children, there’s the assumed expectation that the relationship is a life-long commitment (of course, this is not always the case, but it is the default expectation).
There shouldn’t be the expectation that your relationships at work are permanent because your position with a company is most likely not permanent. Getting a promotion, moving to another company, and retiring can all cause grief for the loss of that employee or relationship. It can also be a time to celebrate.
If we ignore the fact that this complicated blend of grief and joy is common at work by pretending work relationships are as permanent as familial relationships, we miss out on the opportunity to learn and grow as we navigate these feelings.
9 - Your relationships with coworkers and family members are different
Ultimately, your relationship with your family and your coworkers is different. There are different expectations, different boundaries, different norms, and different dynamics. How you engage with your coworkers, how you seek support from them, and how you heal with them are vastly different than how you accomplish these same things with your family members.
That’s healthy, and it should be celebrated. Your relationship with your family members and coworkers are both special—but in different ways.
Understanding this concept will help you continue healing on your trauma-informed journey.
Final Thoughts: How to Resist Toxic Family Work Culture
Now that you understand why family work culture is toxic, the next question on your mind is probably, what can I do to avoid it?
If you want to resist family work culture, you can:
stop using “family” language at work
try to identify and interrupt reenactments
practice using universal precaution
focus on establishing healthy power dynamics and empowering employees
create safety at work with an organizational safety plan
To learn more about applying trauma-informed techniques and discover how trauma-informed consulting and training can serve your organization, consider booking a free consultation with a trauma-informed specialist.