Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Who's Your Daddy? Like a Family at Work

Imagine a utopia of a problem free work place, a fantasy land of raises and bonuses, a dreamscape of rising accolades and new opportunities, a plethora of coworkers who understand and fully support your every decision, who support you, nurture you and address your every professional need.

When I began teaching this was my ideal. In Texas, in order to get your teaching certification, you must take a test littered with situational questions in which you must place yourself in the euphoric land of nod in order to answer the questions - removing yourself from all of the what if's of a normal classroom situation. It was teaching utopia!

This is the kind of work place I envisioned when I heard my present employer say, "We're just like a family here." Both employers and employees frequently describe their perfect working atmosphere in these terms.

Kind of laugh out loud funny, isn't it? Most people I know are not particularly interested in recreating their childhood or current family situation at all - much less in the work place. The same goes for those rare folks, those friends of friends that you've heard about, those people whose present family scene is sensational. Most families - even the healthiest ones- harbor some well-kept secrets, a family "Hall of Shame" or at least, shall we say, an uneven road to post-pubescence.

While some people look for a "family" atmosphere at work, others run screaming for the hills. Regardless, one thing is clear: no matter where you work, you are bound to create close and (hopefully) comfortable relationships with many of your coworkers. Most of us spend more time at work than we do with our families anyhow.

Describing a family atmosphere in the work place generally implies fun, togetherness, closeness, trust, and friendships. In the classroom, teachers strive to create that type of classroom climate, a productive dynamic. It's the same now that I am a Marketing Coordinator; I market internally to our employees as well as to the others within the community working to create a collegial working environment. Often I'll ask, "Should we invite XZY department or is this just family?" meaning do we invite other departments within the univeristy or just those who work in our department.

But the phrase "family atmosphere" requires a little understanding of the typical hierarchy of the work place and explains why some confuse family with the work place. There are pecking orders and authority figures. There are close relationships and the proverbial bonding. All families contain common elements. There is an authority figure, usually a father or mother, or both. In the educational setting, it would be a superintendent and a principal. There are children and sometimes siblings in families with varied pecking orders with each family member making certain contributions to the family as a whole.

Work places emphasizing a family atmosphere may actually have one. There may be parental figures: the mother (the Associate Director or Office Manager); the father (The Managing Director), even a grandparent (the Former Director). Coworkers may rival for attention. Sibling rivalry may exist. You may find yourself "grounded" for a length of time as punishment for a violation of the house rules. (You're thrown off the "A" team for infractions such as not the right attitude. Or, you receive no raise for inadequate work product.) It could be that you may be ostracized by not receiving choice assignments. Further, you may get the message when you screw up: wait until your review. (Translated: Wait until your father gets home.)

Being in a family atmosphere isn't necessarily a bad thing. But is it really the atmosphere you are after? Or are you seeking what the "fantasy family" represents: nurturing, coddling, support, fun, closeness, friendships, strong ties, lifetime commitments, chicken soup?

The reality of the work environment demands that you NOT share all of your personal problems. It is not okay to burst into tears in your office over the latest drama in your love life. It is not okay to go on and on about Aunt Minnie and Uncle Vinnie's latest trials and tribulations.

Familiarity lulls employees into a false sense of security. Your supervisors become your best friends. As a result, the lines are blurred between employee and family member. In a dysfunctional family atmosphere, boundaries are not set and employees end up in unproductive and unpleasant work situations.

Contrast the "family" atmosphere with a work environment based more on a "teamwork" approach. In teamwork, the leader functions more like a coach. No one person is solely responsible for the success of the team. (Compare this with a parental figure, who tells the children what to do and how to do it.) Workers are not punished for bad behavior. Instead, they are coached into good performances.

Whatever your career utopia looks like learn to surround yourself with a group of people who will contribute to the common goal. Remember, you do have the power to create a happy, healthy work environment around you. And you don't have to take out the trash.

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