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Conflicts in the ‘Family’ Work Environment

When work treats you “like family”

Starting in the 1990’s businesses began to use the concept of a work place being "like a family" to encourage potential employees to apply. The notion that work places treat each other "like family" is now fairly ingrained in our corporate culture. It sounds nice, like something you should like, but there are pitfalls to your work being your “family".

Pitfall #1:
• Families can be a huge source of conflict. Virtually every family deals with some drama in the course of their existence. How family members respond to that drama can make or break a family. Often times, conflicts within a family don’t actually get resolved – they simply get managed. Meaning – the family members figure out work- arounds to function, but it’s problematic and recurring. Those learned behaviors are brought with the employee, and triggered when the workplace is identified as family. Why would you want to bring family drama into the workplace?

Pitfall #2:

•           Everyone’s family is completely different! The experiences we bring from family are directly reflective of the type of family we come from. As a conflict coach, I work with teams who are not functioning well. A large majority of them say in both formal and informal ways that "they are family". However – each individual person is bringing their definition of family to that environment.

•           Individual definitions of family can be understood by looking at basic demographics. When I coach a team in conflict within organizations using the ‘family’ approach, I ask them to answer some questions in an exercise:

•           How many siblings do they have?

•           What birth order are they?

•           Parents marital status (and events around it)

•           Family socioeconomic level – low/middle/high income?

•           Religious preference and intensity?

•           How did family deal with conflict?

Then I have them break into pairs or small groups to discuss the differences in their upbringing. The goal is to get them to articulate some of the ways their families dealt with conflict over the years, and to understand how it may be different from others.

What does that matter? Imagine Person A is from a very large, vocal family where arguing is an art form, and the person who wins the argument (either by wearing the others down, actually providing superior facts, or just being more aggressive than the others) also wins attention and approval from parents. Person B is an only child whose parents rewarded quiet and obedience. Put those two people on a team together and you are going to have conflicts that will eventually need to be addressed.

Pitfall #3:

• A family like culture tends to hire people based on their cultural fit with others, rather than their ability to do the job. (Tip, 2018 usually-backfires/.) Membership in a business is optional and an employee can (and sometimes should) have their employment terminated. Membership in a family is not voluntary – you are stuck with what you have (Lauritsen, 2018, spark/articles/2018/08/should-work-be-like-a-family.aspx#). It can make it very difficult to terminate employment even when it is apparent that it is necessary. When an employee needs to be disciplined or terminated (for any reason) it is instantly equated to being "kicked out of the family". Other employees will react emotionally as if the terminated employee really is a family member. This can cause a drop in trust and feelings of security on the job.

Pitfall #4

• Once work is identified as a family – it can cause the lines to be blurred between work responsibilities and the responsibilities due to employees’ real families. Overwork and burnout can result in real family stress. Over time, an employee will start to become dissatisfied and possibly leave. Establishing a balance between work life and family life is often necessary. It is very hard to do if work is also considered family.

Real Family Businesses
• Businesses that are actually family businesses run into conflict all the time.

According to David Harland (Harland, 2017, business) natural conflict in a business takes on new, more complex dimensions when it is between family members. So much so – that mediators are often the best way to resolve conflict. By presenting a workplace as “family”, normal conflicts take on these more complex dimensions.

• If your company already defines employees as family, there are ways you can start to move them to more appropriate terminology. Bruce Poon Tip suggests using the term “Tribe” (Tip, 2018 usually-backfires/). Tribe indicates a group of people who are gathered together for a common purpose or goal, and who are in the group voluntarily. For everyone to be working toward a common goal, that goal or purpose must be clearly defined and communicated.

•           If the organization wants to continue using the family metaphor there are some methods that can be employed to help:

1.        In small groups, facilitate discussions about what family means to each employee.

2.        Be very specific about what this particular organization means by family and compare it to employees’ expectations.

3.        Come to a company-wide understanding about what the family reference means, and what employees can expect in the organization.

Bringing in conflict resolution experts like a mediator specializing in business and family issues may become necessary to help staff develop the type of communication and expectations necessary to achieve the organizations’ goals.


Harland, David. “5 Ways to Manage Conflict in a Family Business.” INTHEBLACK, 27 June 2017, business.

Lauritsen, Jason. “Should Work Be ‘Like a Family?".” Spark, 28 Aug. 2018, spark/articles/2018/08/should-work-be-like-a-family.aspx#.

Tip, Bruce Poon. “If You’re Calling Your Work Team Family, You’re Doing It Wrong.” Quartz at Work, Quartz, 12 Jan. 2018, usually-backfires/.


Kathleen Kauth

Kathleen Kauth is President/Owner of K.T. Beck Enterprises, LLC a Mediation and Business Consulting firm which focuses on using Mediation techniques to help individuals, families and businesses resolve conflicts. With areas of interest in Eldercare and Business Mediation, we are able to provide a wide variety of personalized services.   MORE >

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