We spend over 2000 hours a year at work with our colleagues. We celebrate our successes and failures. We learn to navigate conflict and foster healthy relationships. So, it is natural for us to call our team a family. Many leaders refer to their company cultures saying, “It’s just like a family here.” While this may sound warm, it is sometimes counter-productive.

Why? Says author Alison Greene, “Work can definitely be a place where you have warm, supportive relationships, but they’re not families. That might sound like semantics, but it often means that boundaries get violated and people are expected to show inappropriate amounts of commitment and loyalty, even when it’s not in their self-interest.” In other words, making work our top priority at all times.

Let’s look at the exact challenges that might occur:

Challenge #1: It is hard to quit family.

Delivering on goals is critical at the workplace. When unable to do that, some people might need to move on to find a better work fit. In such a situation, those left behind might feel the loss immensely. Or if people leave at a time when the organization is in turmoil/ intense transition, the rest of the team may feel betrayed, given the context of family-like relationships. Because in families, we make it work no matter what. That may be an unrealistic expectation at the office.

Challenge #2: It blurs the work-life boundaries.

Close relationships are welcome at work, but reliving work projects is a significant aspect of such friendships. So, when do we really take a break? Moreover, there might be an implied expectation to do each other favors. The result – we can’t say no when it gets too much. This is more pronounced in remote teams, or teams that work across time-zones, where work extends into personal time. Says Nicole Miller, Manager at Buffer, “I believe the kindest thing we can do, is help our teammates draw firm, clear boundaries.”

Challenge #3: It implies that anything flies.

In families, there is a place for a wide range of behaviors. People might rain down on each other. Or some members might contribute way more than the others. But this would be unacceptable in teams, where safety, productivity, and inclusion matters. When members cross boundaries or indulge in unfair behavior under the ‘family’ cover, it affects the overall health of the team.

Does this mean teams shouldn’t bond or build camaraderie? No. It’s essential for teams to build positive, nurturing connections. Our ask is that we be mindful of how dynamics in close teams can get unhealthy. Instead of family, let’s focus on being a tribe.

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