Families, Colleagues and the Company We Keep

May 21, 2020

Families, Colleagues and the Company We Keep

We call my parent’s house Casa de Mano. In naming the house, we had no claims to pretension nor desire to convey that we lived in a historic estate, filled which magic and mystery. Rather, the naming was an homage to a childhood lesson on the importance of family. 

In order to impart this lesson on my two brothers and me, my parents compared the five of us to the fingers of a hand. “Together,” they would say, “these fingers could accomplish things that no individual finger could do alone.”

In my teenage years, I constantly visualized the scene from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, where Lucy told Linus, “These five fingers...individually, they’re nothing. But when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold!” 

This made the hand an ominous symbol, reflecting Thomas Hobbes’ totalitarian view that the authority of the leader must be absolute to be effective. Life was insecure without deference to the “hand” of the body politic—or in my case, the family. 

As I developed a deeper sense of myself, however, I realized my misinterpretation. My parents did not see the individual fingers as nothing, but that each finger had strengths and limitations. Individually, each finger could be quite productive in its own way, but more could be accomplished when individual strengths and capabilities were united in a shared goal. We didn’t need to punch our way through life—like Lucy or choose between conforming and collapsing—like Hobbes’ Leviathan. We could go our own ways and develop our own interests, always knowing help was a short step away.

The Work Family

In many ways, organizational culture reflects family dynamics. Our acceptance of terms like “work spouse” explicitly draws a parallel between family and work relationships. Moreover, many times people see their bosses like parent figures, are protective of their subordinates like children (and get disappointed by them in similar ways), and share moments in the office like relatives at a family gathering. The analogy of work to family life makes sense, since we try to understand relationships we have through models reflecting our own experiences. We spend significant amounts of time with the people with whom we work, and we share many of the same goals and values—both personal and professional—as our colleagues with whom we share an office. 

Because of the ease with which we view work life through the lens of non-work relationships, when values-driven leaders attempt to create positive work environments, they should first understand their employees’ views—as well as their own—about what constitutes healthy relationships. This is even more important today in our high-stress and isolating environment when people are working from home and unable to causally check in on each other. People are also unable to capture all the signals that employees may be conveying, since phone calls and online chats disallow one to see normal body language and affect. 

Case-in-point, research by Christine Porath has shown that, while employees rank giving respect as the most important leadership characteristic, reports of disrespectful behavior have increased year after year. Importantly, this type of behavior is being tolerated less and less. A LinkedIn survey showed that 70 percent of professionals in the U.S. would rather work for lower pay at a less prestigious company than work in a bad workplace environment. 

Changing Views on Family

While incivility may be rising for a number of different reasons, one factor may be today’s changing family dynamic. Specifically, the normative family structures of the 1950s are very different from the types of family structures of the 1990s to today, with the family hierarchy flattening and becoming less consistent. Whereas it was once the norm for parents to control their children’s life decisions, today, children play a greater role in determining who they are and who they will become, even if they receive help from their parent(s) or parental figures.

Similarly, today’s employees conceive of showing respect as leaders demonstrating that they value the different opinions and worldviews of their employees. Contrast this to Achievers’ annual Employee Engagement & Retention Report, where 82 percent of employees surveyed either strongly or somewhat agreed to the question of whether they wished they received more recognition at work; 30 percent of employees felt not very or not at all valued by superiors. 

Moreover, heterogeneous work environments can produce both more innovative and creative approaches to business opportunities as well as an ethos where people’s individuality is felt to be respected. Similarly, instilling a sense of organizational purpose (rather than imposing a standard company practice) can engender deeper commitment to the company and collaboration among different divisions of the same organization. 

In recognition of this, more and more, successful companies are implementing the Casa de Mano strategy. 

More Than a Job

For example, to attract and retain talented employees, IBM has taken its employee experiences seriously and is working to develop ways to optimize individual and collective potential in the workplace—reflecting a larger trend of “employee experience management” in various industries. Similarly, purpose-driven employment strategies are being embraced by companies. These strategies individualize employee recruitment by conveying that company goals speak to personal values and priorities. Jobs are no longer simply jobs but ways to find others who can help you achieve your own interests and shared commitments.

For leaders and managers to be successful using the Casa de Mano approach, they should realize that they play the role of the thumb. The thumb cannot do much on its own—not even as much as any of the other fingers. But the success of the thumb—and what differentiates it from the other fingers—is that it is opposable. It can touch all of the other fingers to provide them support, and it enables all the fingers to work together as a hand. Recognition that leaders serve this supporting and strengthening role will lend the company the hand it needs in these new organizational environments. 

The Authors: 

Ira Bedzow, Ph.D., is the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Associate Professor of Medicine at New York Medical College. He is also Senior Scholar of the Aspen Center for Social Values.