Insider Intelligence: It is All in the Family

Aug. 12, 2021
Why describing your work environment as a family can have unforeseen connotations
This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention Security Business magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter.   

I had a recent epiphany – a eureka moment if you will. In a discussion with several business peers, I discovered that a term that I thought showed my emotional intelligence (one that I had regularly used to describe my workmates), could be considered demotivating or even toxic to some people. How humbling I thought…could I have been so wrong all this time?

And, just what was the toxic word? Family. Yep, family. Before you write off this dissertation as some new-age, mumbo-jumbo nonsense, consider the following points: 

  • Family has different meanings and evokes different emotions in people – not all of them good or healthy.
  • Not everyone comes from the perfect, idyllic family – like Ward and June Cleaver of “Leave it to Beaver” fame (for you youngsters, just think about the recent Marvel series, “WandaVision,” where every episode depicted a different famous sitcom about family life)

So, when I use the term family to describe a company and its employees, it can conjure up some unintended negative emotions and consequences. While you can choose your friends and choose where you work, you cannot choose your family. There is no department, even at Nordstrom, where you can shop for your favorite or ideal family. Family is a birthright; the workplace is not.

If you find that your current role or job is not working for you and you want to make a career change, you have that independent right to resign or leave and find the best new path forward. Family? Nope. For better or worse, you are stuck. For many of us, this is a blessing; but that does not mean it is true for everyone.

Can you imagine putting someone in your family on a performance improvement plan? Let’s play out that scenario: “Uh, dad, we all have met and decided that you just are not working up to the initial potential we saw in you. We are placing you on a 90-day improvement plan, and if that doesn’t work out, well….we will have to let you go.”

Can you imagine shuffling your family units because a family member didn’t live up to the ideals or the performance culture you created? It just doesn’t happen that way. The good, the bad, the ugly – family is family. It is unconditional. Work roles, work accountability? Not so much.

So, now what? What terms can you use instead? How do you describe your work team or work peers that still shows your emotional connection to them? How about team, squad, work group, crew, department or workmates?

These work on so many levels because they can be isolated as a work or workplace term. Now, when you set your company culture and you talk about performance expectations – there is no emotional baggage tying you to family life. This is work life and you need to be able to separate the two.

It turns out that smart leaders – like the one who helped me become aware of the family term – use company core values to bind the team and to judge how well new employees are working out. You want your team to be filled with people who espouse the same ideals, and values and performance standards as you. Using your core values helps to accomplish that.

This does not mean that you cannot strive for healthy emotions about family in your workplace or company. There is nothing wrong with thinking or saying, “I love my work team like I love my family.” Just realize the difference.

Ric McCullough is President of PSA Security Network. Request more info about PSA at