The PeopleCap Playbook

Timely insights and actionable people strategies for leaders.

The Dark Side of the “Family” Culture

I have worked with many companies who have described their culture first and foremost as “a family.” What they generally mean is that they greatly value the relationships that they have with their colleagues at work. Though there is nothing wrong with building strong relationships with your colleagues, I have found over the years that the “family” culture has a dark side – a lack of accountability.

As I write this, I am on a family vacation. I don’t know about your family, but as much as I love mine and enjoy spending time with them, we can hardly get out of the house before noon for the disorganization, indecision, and deference to one another. This is not the recipe for a high performing team.

While it’s fine to enjoy your colleagues and make good friends at work, you have to be mindful of crossing a relationship line where you are no longer able to effectively hold your colleagues accountable for their work.

The biggest complaint that we hear in self-described “family” cultures is the inability to deal with poor performers. Leaders tout an average employee tenure of 30 plus years while employees report people retired at their desks. “You would have to commit a violent crime to get fired from this place,” reported one employee. Managers complain of poor performers being moved around the organization like food on your plate. “I can’t fire him, he’s been with me forever!” When this happens, the relationships have been prioritized above performance. That works in a real family where we love everybody, bless their hearts. That does not work in a business with serious aspirations for growth.

If this problem resonates with you, there are a few things that you can do to move your relational culture toward a more high performing one. In our work, we talk about introducing accountability structures that act as check points and governors for the organization. Here are 5 Accountability Structures that will help you set clear and constructive boundaries with your colleagues:

1 Set Goals and Work Backwards

What are your goals in 5 years? What could your organization become? When the goals are clear you can work backwards to determine what is needed to get there. (We recommend the “OKR” method described in John Doerr’s book, Measure What Matters.) Understanding where you are going and what organizational performance is necessary to get there will provide clarity around performance and opportunities for dialog.

2 Define and Defend Your Culture

Establishing and promoting cultural values will help create a clear standard that all employees will be held to. Defending the culture means dealing with people whose behavior does not conform to the culture.

3 Set Clear Expectations

Develop a process where managers and employees meet to explicitly discuss expectations and goals at least annually, but quarterly is even better. These conversations offer clarity and an opportunity to ask for help. When a pattern of unmet expectations emerges, it will be clear to both manager and employee.

4 Hold Managers Accountable

Often the very managers complaining about poor performers being shuffled through the organization are those who are to blame. It’s a leadership issue as much as an employee issue. Hold managers accountable through goals and incentive compensation. If having a high performing team impacts their compensation, they may be more likely to make tough decisions.

5 Add Independent Directors to Your Board

If your company is a family business or founder led organization, adding independent directors brings a layer of objectivity and accountability. Independent directors also bring their expertise and outside perspective, and act as advisors to the CEO. The ultimate cover for a CEO having to make a difficult choice is, “Because the board is putting pressure on me to do this.”  That can be welcome shelter in a storm.

Adding these accountability structures to your organization will help create a culture where strong interpersonal relationships can coexist with high performance.