April 10, 2023

Why Your Team Is NOT Your Family (Challenge #62)

Why Your Team Is NOT Your Family (Challenge #62)
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Let’s just go ahead and get right down to it: your team at work is not your family, and believing otherwise will lead you down a disastrous path. 

 It makes sense that people often compare the two because a cohesive family and team both operate in similar ways. However, how many functional families do you actually know? The two differ quite clearly when it comes to their purpose. This makes for completely different power dynamics and interpersonal challenges. 

 A good, kind, leader knows when, where, and how to draw the line and set the appropriate boundaries. These can be complex situations to manage and is why leaders have a tendency to confuse their teams with their families. We’re all fallible, mistake-making human beings, so it’s completely understandable!

 Tune in today for practical tips on how to navigate these different dynamics, what warning signs to look out for and how to (mostly) leave your family baggage at home, and out of the workplace.

(note: this classic episode was originally released on September 5, 2022. If you enjoyed it, explore the complete podcast archives!)  

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This episode was produced byPodcast Boutique.


OK, it’s soapbox time. Over the years I’ve seen a lot of toxic nonsense go on in organizations where I’ve worked or whose leaders I’ve coached. And more often than not, that toxic nonsense is at least partly caused by a culture that defines itself as a family. If you take away nothing else from this episode, take away this one point.


 In this episode I’ll explain both the reasons why this is the case and the warning signs you should look for as the creator and steward of your team’s culture. But it all really boils down to one rhetorical question: 

How many functional families do you know of?


Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge, where I empower educational and library leaders like you to build a better world! I’m Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild. My PhD in higher ed Leadership, my experience coaching, consulting, and presenting to library leaders all over the world, and a career working in academic libraries from the front desk to the Dean’s office taught me that leaders can transform their organizations without burning out. And now I’m sharing those same lessons with you.  

Here's the deal. You give me the next few minutes of your day. In return, I'll share short stories and simple challenges designed to heal yourself and your school or library, so you can get back to making the impact you wish to see in your communities. By embarking on each week’s challenge on your own or in our private facebook group, you and your team will begin growing humanely, managing effectively, and partnering collaboratively, and your school or library will build a more informed and educated world along the way.

How can you successfully navigate challenging conversations so that you can transform your team culture and acquire the resources you need to thrive? Mastering Challenging Conversations is a free guide to applying the principles of kind leadership to planning, conducting, and moving forward from any challenging leadership conversation. Just go to Kindleadershipchallenge.com/conversations, enter your email and start having the conversations that will impact your community for the better.


A school or library team is not like a family for one very simple reason. Your employer will never love you, and trying to love them is a one way road to burnout and disaster.  Now, both a healthy team and a healthy family collaborate in a spirit of trust and psychological safety, and I think that’s where this confusion of work and family might have gotten started. However, The purpose of a work team and the purpose of a family are very different. In a school or library, you are attempting to meet performance goals and serve your students, patrons, and community. In a family, the goal is to protect the family and keep it safe and well. Both of these are important goals, but they have different implications, which lead to very different power dynamics, member turnover, and interpersonal challenges.

First up, Power Dynamics. Because the Goal of a family is to protect and love its members as they grow, power dynamics ideally become more balanced and shift around over time. I see this with my mom, who is currently taking care of my 97 year old grandma, who is physically healthy for her years but is living with dementia. As you might imagine, My mom and grandmother’s power dynamic has flipped almost completely over the course of my mom’s life, from mother/daughter, to a fairly close adult friendship of more-or-less equals, to the current situation where Mom is helping her mother to, in her own words, “grow down”. It's a beautiful, bittersweet thing to watch, and I’m taking notes for when the time comes for me to step up to support my parents. 

In a workplace, however, power works differently. There are defined leaders and team members, and although people switch roles, it’s all much more regimented and precise. Assuming that all those power dynamics play out within a culture of clarity and trust, those differences aren’t inherently bad. But they mean that what happens in a healthy team is very different from what happens in a healthy family.   There are performance standards that have to be met, and behavioral expectations that have to be enforced. Budgets have to be balanced, even if it means cuts to services or staff, And although a kind leader will expect loyalty from their team, they don’t want so much loyalty that their team is scared to speak up or ask questions if their leader is making a mistake. More seriously, A leader also doesn’t have the right to ask a team to put the organization’s needs above their own health and rest. 

Second, there is, or at least should be, a heck of a lot more turnover in a healthy team versus a healthy family. A new arrival to your team should be welcomed as a valuable asset, not eyed with suspicion like a new baby sibling who was promised to be a fun playmate but really just smells funny and cries all the time. And a departure of a team member should be seen as a bittersweet farewell, not an act of exile or betrayal. Through no malice or intent, overly tight teams can be hard to break into, and at their worst can come with unspoken initiations and hazing rituals. And they can be hard to leave, both for those who move on, and the people who remain. That means teams can stagnate, and harden, and become brittle. And family though they may feel like they are, they can crack into panic and toxicity at the first big unexpected change.

So why is it that people, leaders included, have such a tendency to mix up their teams with their families in the first place? My working theory is that all of us, myself included, bring our family baggage to work, and semi-consciously try to recreate those relationships if we’re not careful. I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in a pretty healthy family by the somewhat looser standards of the 1980s and 90s, but I still have some issues here and there because I was raised by fallible human beings. And as a leader I have to be especially careful not to bring those issues into the office. I’ve witnessed and coached in situations where people are creating office drama by playing out dynamics with spouses, parents, kids, often without realizing it. I am not a therapist, so I’m not about to suggest treatment for that sort of thing. And as a leader, neither should you. Here’s what you should do instead.

If the key difference between a work team and a family team is the power dynamic, then it’s time for you as a leader to take a deep breath, compartmentalize whatever family stuff YOU may have brought to the situation, and calm the waters by establishing clear boundaries and expectations. You can’t fix the fact that your front desk clerk’s uncle stole her slice of birthday cake when she was seven, but you can require her to speak to her manager with respect. And that manager might have to learn to take a breath and remember that her desk clerk isn’t her challenging toddler who’s been keeping her up nights all week.  

And as sad as some of you may find this, you will best be able to manage these inevitable dynamics by keeping yourself from getting too close to your team. In most cases, you should strive to be “friendly, but not friends”. You need to preserve your ability to step back onto the balcony, so you can observe your team, see how it works, and humanely but effectively steer them where they need to go to meet your shared goal. I realized from my first “management” role supervising student workers that I would never be able to be as close with my team as they were with each other. And with each time I moved up the ladder, the distance grew a little. I have had to grieve that. But it’s a sacrifice that’s required of a kind leader who wants their team to meet their full potential. 

So here’s your challenge for this week. Grab your journal, and go to a quiet space somewhere. And do an honest examination of whether or not your team has become a bit too much like a family. And if it has, what steps can you take to establish some distance? If you need help, come to the Kind Leadership Challenge Facebook page. We have anonymous posting turned on, so don’t worry if you have to share something a little sensitive or vulnerable. We’re here to support.

Thanks for listening and for taking action to become a kinder leader. If you found this week’s episode insightful, give the show a rating or review—or even better, tell your fellow leaders!  Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.   

Oh, and one last note for my younger brother. If you’re listening, I guess you didn’t smell all that funny when mom and dad brought you home from the hospital.

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