Netflix founder Reed Hastings, build a team, not a family

Luay Rahil

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Counter to popular belief: Your coworkers aren’t your “family.”

When it comes to your work, it’s no wonder that a strong personal element comes into play. You spend most of your waking hours at work. As a result, you build meaningful relationships, create special memories with your coworkers, and you impact the world in a special way that no one outside your coworkers understands.

These deep, meaningful relationships, memorable moments, and long-term impact inspire managers and leaders to use terms like family to describe the organizational culture. However, most business leaders miss a huge point.

At work, you are replaceable. Everyone is. To your family, you are not. A workplace is replaceable. A family is not. As Andy Stanley says, “Don’t trade what’s unique to you for something somebody else will do.” Many people could do your job at work, but no one can do your job at home. Likewise, anyone can complete a monthly report, but no one can replace your role as a parent at home.

So when organizations use the word family to describe the work environment, they miss a huge point and opportunity at the same time. The point is that relationships dynamic are different at home, and an exaggerated sense of family at work becomes harmful. The opportunity they need to focus on is creating a community at work that supports your role at home.

Don’t create a false sense of belonging.

When they create a false sense of belonging at home, employees start to wonder what shortcomings or toxic elements managers are hiding. As a high performer named Alex once told me, “When I heard my boss saying that we are family, I knew he wanted me to feel a false sense of belonging and security so that I can work longer hours.”

Alex understands how to build healthy relationships at work, support his coworkers, and care for their wellbeing, but he also knows they are not his family. Alex adds, “You can fire an employee, but you can’t fire a family member.” So, the term “We are family here” leads employees to believe that company will take advantage of them.

It also means that your boundaries will get violated, and your loyalty and commitment will be valued or questioned before your hard work.

I’m not here to accuse every organization or manager who uses the term “We are like family” that they have bad intentions. I suppose the term could mean that “We care about each other, respect each other and communicate openly.” However, employees don’t hear that. Instead, they hear that this relationship will require a lot of emotional labor, blind loyalty, and unpaid time.

Don’t trade what is permanent for something temporary

The harsh truth that executives don’t want you to know is this, your role at work is not unique. Anyone can do it. However, your role at home is unique to you, your role in your family is special, and no one can take your place.

Organizations should not be promoting the idea that “Our company is like a family.” Your family is your family, and your work is your work. You don’t have the same responsibilities at home, and you don’t have the same duties at work.

Go home and connect with your family.

I’m fortunate enough to lead a group of people, and I never tell them that we are a family. However, I tell them two things.

  1. We are a community that cares about your family.
  2. People who you work for and waiting for you at home.

As a work community, we promote values like caring, love, a sense of belonging, respect, empathy, joy, and fairness.

However, I don’t sell our organization’s culture as a family because it can be psychologically damaging. For example, I will never ask an employee to choose between covering for his sick coworker (work-family member) or attending his son’s event at school. That’s not fair to them.

I want people to work very hard, earn a lot of money, and go home to enjoy time with their families.

Alison Green, who runs the career advice blog Ask a Manager, says, “There’s nothing wrong with loving your work, enjoying your company, and having goodwill toward your coworkers. We all should strive to work in jobs like that. But it’s still O.K., and even good, to put your family first in the long run.”

I don’t want to correct your manager every time they use the word family, but I want you to stay focused on one thing, the people you work for are waiting for you at home. Your work is work, and your family is family, don’t confuse the two terms.

We are a team, not a family.

Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, understood this concept, “We’re a team, not a family. We’re like a pro sports team, not a kid’s recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.”

Work works best when each member knows their responsibilities and duties. Everyone is happier when boundaries are clear and respected. When your organization becomes a community that cares about your family, everyone will become more productive and content.

Stop branding your workplace a “Family.”

Joshua A. Luna outlines in his HBR article what companies need to do instead of branding their company as a family.

  1. Define high performance and focus on purpose when building teams. Make sure to disassociate the concepts of “family” from conversations around high performance and purpose.
  2. Set clear boundaries. The grayer the policy, the more opportunities for misunderstanding.
  3. Mutually accept the temporary and professional nature of this relationship. Companies should not force employees to build relationships at work. Instead, they should require employees to act professionally without forcing them to construct ingenuine relationships.

Family relationships can be binding, and anything binding isn’t ideal for work and resistant to change. So focus on building a community and start seeing your professional relationships grow and your productivity improve.

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