What leaders can learn from family relationships

What leaders can learn from family relationships

Families are the building block of human societies. Organisations are no different.

We changed our habitat only 250 years ago with the industrial revolution when we moved into offices and factories. We didn’t suddenly lose what it meant to be human. A key social construct we carried with us into modern workplaces was the need for intimate affiliation to a would-be family.

This fundamental of human nature has important implications for leaders.

First, we structure our organisations so managers lead teams of a family size – about seven in number. If we ask managers to manage teams larger than nine or smaller than four, we are designing dysfunction into our organisation.

Secondly, team leaders are presented with a paradox to manage. While people have this need to belong to a would-be family, our work team is not our real family. So a manager needs to find a balance:  to be reasonably close and candid with team members but not as close and candid as we are to real family.

Thirdly, the concept of family is a positive one for managers. The natural condition is for families to have a leader. The team wants someone to fill the role of leader. This insight is especially useful for new managers who are sometimes uncertain about their role in delegating, leading and holding people to account.

It means that managers have a significant impact on team dynamics and engagement. Given that 80% of people who resign from organisations do so because of an unsatisfactory relationship with their immediate supervisor, it speaks volumes that managers are the single biggest influence on staff engagement.

The instinctive need to belong to an intimate team means that when people enjoy that experience, they say “our team is just like a family”. But if we belong to a dysfunctional family at work, then people will understandably leave and wander off to find a better family group.


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