Recently, I was featured in a short Q&A talking about my thoughts on leadership. Quite frankly, I did it more as a favor than anything else, and I spent around 20 minutes answering the questions. I do spend a considerable amount of time thinking about leadership at work and how it translates into day-to-day work and even beyond traditional workplaces. However, this piece was supposed to be short and direct, and that’s it.
To my surprise, the short piece has elicited a vigorous response as it resonated with so many people. Over the past few days, I have received several emails congratulating me for my answers and words, and also looking for advice. Honestly, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with the messages. However, the more I read them, the more I think of the few common threads in all these situations. One of them is how some directors/supervisors/managers or people in positions of power at work often throw the word “family” around so easily. And if you know me, you know I have a lot of things to say about this “well-intentioned” path of family images and concepts at work.
I’d like to think that most directors/supervisors/managers refer to their teams as “family” with the aspirational purpose of creating a nurturing, caring and friendly work environment. Needless to say, this is a commendable thing to do. However, the problem is when this concept becomes exclusively a romanticized idea of a group of people who need to stick together no matter what and without any concrete gains and outcomes for the team members such as salary, boundaries, empowerment, advancement, etc. The slippery slope of people in positions of power using the word “family” at work is how quickly it can degenerate into some real negative consequences for the employees. In my experience, the flip side of using family ideas and concepts at work includes three major threats to employees: lack of transparency, lack of accountability and making employees believe that they don’t have a way out.
This “family” concept at work almost inevitably devolves into lack of transparency and lack of communication. In these scenarios, the directors/supervisors/managers take the role of a parental figure with the authority to make decisions for you without following any policies, no transparency on decision making processes and no feedback from team members and all while claiming to do it in the benefit and care of the employees. Once your boss becomes your parent in a family system, there is an even more skewed power relationship which has a significant risk to completely exclude the employees from important conversations and information about things that directly impact these same employees. The “parental figure” boss falls into the trap of thinking they are the only ones who know what’s best for their team without asking for any feedback whatsoever. They delude themselves into believing that their “well-intentioned” goals of seeing their team members as a “family” supersedes salient and concrete steps which ultimately bring legitimacy to their positions of power.
Lack of accountability is particularly dangerous when it comes to bosses using family concepts at work. Nothing can better tell you what’s wrong at work than when something goes wrong, a mistake happens, and everything that has not been working for years comes to the fore for everyone to see. For actual leaders, that same moment can be enlightening, transformational and an opportunity to lead. However, for parental figure bosses, this is an opportunity to hide things under the rug, not to make a big deal out of it (especially if it concerns them directly) and to ignore established policies and rules. For employees from minority and diverse backgrounds, this lack of accountability is the major reason why these “family” environments at work can be incredibly damaging and demoralizing. Who gets to decide how “important” a problem is? Who gets to decide which consequences should take place once something happens? Who gets to decide who knows about it and when? In my experience, bosses that see themselves as parental figures want to have the complete power to decide in these situations because they fear accountability, and it triggers their own sense of insecurity and lack of control over their team.
Last but not least, bosses who try to create “family” environments at work encourage, either explicitly or implicitly, a sense that employees owe everything to their job and they simply do not have a way out. These “family” environments at work tend to take employees for granted while at the same time instilling in them feelings of shame and guilt if they ever consider the idea of leaving or “abandoning their families”. If you’re an employee in this situation, please do not let anyone make you believe that. It’s simply not true. Every single job has a beginning and ending date. Make sure that you have as much power as possible over these two dates. If your voice is not taken into consideration, your feedback is not welcomed, the policies are loosely enforced, they take you for granted and all this in the name of the big “family” that sticks together forever, please revisit your options and get out.
These days, there are a lot of conversations in law librarianship about how the historical number of vacancies can pose a threat to the future of our profession. I’d like to complicate that narrative somehow and put us, the employees at the center. As employees and team members in our law libraries, this is our time to demand from the people in charge to improve our work environments in concrete ways instead of relying on gimmicky concepts and words thrown around here and there. If your boss really believes in well-intentioned concepts for her team, then there must be concrete steps taken on compensation, benefits, encouraging feedback, listening to her team, real participation and inclusion, professional advancement, transparency on decision making, etc. If that’s not the case, take a look at the multiple vacancies, apply, pack your things and go. Move forward and don’t look back!
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.