Organizations Are Not Families, Part 1

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Organizations Are Not Families, Part 1

Ever heard the line, 'our company is a family'? While the sentiment may be good, one Agile expert discusses why she's never liked the metaphor.

· Agile Zone ·
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I read Joe Berkowitz's story in Fast Company, John Oliver Was Right: It's Time To Confront The Dustin Hoffmans In Your Life. There's a link to a video excerpt in which Hoffman discusses the idea that the people felt like a family.

Mr. Berkowitz says this:

There is no template for how to be a good man in the #MeToo era.

I disagree.

There is a template. My father called it being "professional." Here's how he explained professionalism to me when I started to work (my first job was an arts and crafts counselor when I was 14 - I was terrible at it).

  • I had to be on time for work.
  • I had to be dressed appropriately for the work.
  • I had to be courteous to everyone, regardless of who they were. I dealt with children, their parents, and several layers of management. It didn't matter who said what, it was my job to be courteous.

Notice that his definition of professionalism was about respect - respect for my work, respect for the people I worked with, and respect for myself.

I learned more as I worked throughout high school, in college, and, finally, as a software developer:

  • I had to let my teammates and managers know my status. I couldn't "go dark" or say, "later..." or even be vague about what I was doing. I owed them words and specifics.
  • I had to give other people the benefit of the doubt. Even - maybe especially - if I thought they were bozos.

Notice my refinement of the notion of respect. I could disagree with people. I could tear apart their code and designs as long as I did it with respect.

Later, when I became a manager, I expanded what it meant to be professional:

  • Create a culture of personal safety inside the organization. I didn't tolerate sexism, dirty jokes, or any other supposed jokes that made fun of people.
  • Create a culture where people could - at the least - come to me so we could problem-solve together, even if they didn't feel comfortable with confrontation.
  • I provided people feedback and coaching (if desired) because letting people know the effects of their actions (good and not so good) and offering to help them improve was a mark of my respect for them.
  • I met with people every week or every other week, to build and maintain that trusting relationship. Yes, one-on-ones are a sign of respect for the people you lead.

I built a culture of respect with my staff and with my peers.

I was not perfect. I made some huge mistakes. I was pretty good at management. Being pretty good bought me the trust and respect from the people I led and with my peers.

I first heard the "we are family" myth about organizations back in the '80s when I worked for a small startup. The CEO said that in an all-hands meeting. I told him then and there that he was dead wrong. I treasured my professional relationships with everyone there, but they were not part of my family (I might have used those exact words - I can be blunt and be respectful).

As a manager and as a consultant, I have had to deal with the perception that I could be a "mother-like figure" to the people I managed or my clients. I explained that I was not their mother. I coached them. I provided and received feedback. I cleared obstacles. I was not their mother.

When the organizational leaders talk about "family," they disrespect us. They treat us as children.

Organizations are not families. That's because the managers have all the organizational power. Too often, instead of using it to create a culture where we can all share knowledge and build respect, they use it to hide information from us.

When supposed leaders hide salaries, ranking, and the career ladder (never mind the project portfolio), they treat us as if we are children. We need to be protected. We need to be sheltered.

Excuse me. We are adults. We manage our finances. We enter into legal agreements. We might even have children that we do protect and shelter (less and less as they grow up).

We can treat each other as adults, with respect, regardless of the organizational power we supposedly hold, we all win (some of us are not so impressed with organizational power).

Yes, Mr. Berkowitz, we do have a template for being professional. If we respect each other, that's an excellent place to start. It might not cover all circumstances, but it's a start.

agile, devlife, work culture

Published at DZone with permission of Johanna Rothman , DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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