Why do we look for a work family?

by Nov 18, 2021

Why do we want our colleagues to be a work family?


Many of us look for a work family.  But are family relationships so great we want to replicate them in our professional lives?


There has been a lot of noise on social media in the last weeks around people having a “work family.” Do you think you have one? Would you even want one?

I can imagine it’s pretty tempting to put a direct report on a time-out for poor timekeeping. Or sit them on the naughty step to think about their behaviour. You may have wanted to impose a curfew, or insist that you don’t want backchat in meetings. You may dream about bringing your whole authentic self to the workplace and would like to eat your tuna sandwich at your desk in pj’s and flip flops as you might at home.

But the reality is it’s not possible. Well, at least not in the same way.



Blurred expectations

Tobias Lütke the CEO of Shopify says you don’t choose your family. That is true. You can’t fire a sibling for making a mistake or write up your Mum for poor performance – although my kids would have certainly employed that option if it had been available. I would have been on permanent probation.

Some would say that equating work relationships with family relationships blurs professional and personal boundaries. But there are also many similarities. In families there tends to be a hierarchy – parents, then kids. Hold on..just like in teams. There can be a super brat attention seeker who can overturn that, which we have all seen too. Communication can be blurred and responsibilities aren’t always clearly defined.


Within a family, there is a communication culture where we don’t always deal with emotions constructively. We flood, yell or retreat. There is violence and abuse. No kidding. Just like the office!

Families are supposed to offer unconditional love and support. Colleagues and bosses won’t always do that, but then again neither do many families.

Siblings can be competitive but in the workplace you are possibly competing with your co-workers for a job, the stretch assignment or the promotion.

It’s not so clear cut is it?

Relationship fluency

Esther Perel a Belgian relationship therapist, workplace philosopher, author and world-renown keynote speaker offers compelling insights into the role of modern relationships in the workplace and how they mirror our primary personal ones. I interviewed her in 2018 and have attended her workshops.

Author of the bestselling books Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs she has a successful couple’s therapy practice in New York. Three years ago she told me that she believed that generally people are hired for competence and skills, but frequently fired because of a relationship failure of some kind. This basic premise makes sense.

Her thesis is that we look for, and are motivated by, the same qualities in our professional relationships as we are in our personal ones. Empathy, trust, dependability, and the possibility to be authentic, are key drivers. We have the same sometimes contradictory desires to feel both secure, but independent within both our families and in work.

Today’s workplaces are built on relationships, whether with reports, co-workers, customers or any other stakeholders. Effective relationships grease the wheels of any organisation and make them function successfully. Highly performing organisations we all know are more profitable.

Typically in a hiring process, it is the role of the candidate to persuade the organisation to trust them. Managers never ask “What do I need to do to gain your trust?”

Family replicated

Workplace relationships are as prone to the same range of emotions as our personal relationships. Sibling rivalry, manipulation and favouritism all occur in the workplace. We see: raging, power playing, ghosting, betrayal, or withholding. Who hasn’t felt stabbed in the back by a colleague, disappointed by a boss who plays favourites, betrayed by a report or overwhelmed by an angry customer?

Who has ever wondered if a co-worker is plotting to undermine us? Or tried to protect their team from an external and possibly Machiavellian threat? We have been yelled at by co-workers and huge numbers experience harassment and abuse.  Workplaces can be toxic just as families can and abusive situations can be just has hard to shake off.  

Today, employees are publicly vocal about their employment experiences even if they are negative. Job seekers do research how organisation treats their employees. If this negatively impacts an employer’s brand then all stakeholders customers, investors, and the general public will begin to doubt its products and services.

Ideal family

Perhaps it’s our idealised version of a family is what we are really looking for. Those perfect, fulfilling and supportive relationships that will continue to be elusive.

We all need to be on the same page about professional relationship expectations to avoid disappointment. Your employer and co-workers may not be your family, but just as personal relationships fail and people move on, the same is happening in organisations. Leaders have to manage expectations, because employees want more. Thus we see a the Great Resignation as employees seek to redress things that are wrong with their jobs.

Very often this can be about leaving a toxic workplace culture. In many ways workplaces more than families are in a better position to put things right.

Note: Adapted from a post published on LinkedIn


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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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