Not Even Wrong – Thoughts on the organization as family metaphor 11

November 2014

If you find yourself in an organization that subscribes to the “organization-as-family” metaphor, you might consider yourself rather lucky. The majority of organizations around the world have not yet reached such an “advanced” evolutionary level. So says the research. An yet, even if the “family” metaphor is evidence of “better” than what came before, it is also evidence that it’s “worse” than what could be – and already is – in some still rare cases. In the future of work, the family metaphor as we know it will most likely be abandoned.

Even so. Today, the “organization-as-family” mindset is ahead of the curve, but it comes with a few difficulties worth discussing.

First of all, we cannot have a family metaphor without kids and parents. In a “family” organization, the management team will (knowingly or not) be positioned by others or by themselves as the “parents”. This will result in problems related to the “mommy and daddy knows best” mindset. This mental model will exist implicitly, and it will inevitably be questioned. Forcefully. I put it to you that in a “organization as a family” mindset we will find ourselves in a stage of permanent teenage rebellion. And this is a good thing! In a sense, the great contribution of the family metaphor is that it creates both the need, the opportunity and perhaps even the language, for emancipatory processes to emerge and unfold.

Yet, the fact that this teenage rebellion is healthy as well as “normal” – and can be the catalyst that eventually drives the organization towards the next evolutionary leap – does not soften the blow: this stage of evolution can be very frustrating for “children” and “parents” alike.

The “organization-as-family” prepares the soil. It creates the perfect conditions for rebellion. And it will be a rebellion against the very people who made all this “new stuff” possible.

So, imagine how the “parents” must feel. They “gave you” all of this and you’re ungrateful? It’s probably really hard for them to understand why. The people who “gave you this” are probably senior. They have most likely lived their entire lives in lower evolution organizations. The freedom, independence, care and love that they (as parents) are providing in this new and better setting is most certainly revolutionary to them. And I’d expect them to expect you to be grateful. Not obstinate.

And just to make it a tad more difficult, if you find yourself in an organization that is in a transitional phase of evolution (still a bit in “organization-as-machine” mindset, yet having moved considerably into “organization-as-family” mindset) it seems inescapable that you will be uncomfortably straddling two conflicting paradigms.

I think this explains rather well why the transition from organization-as-machine towards organization-as-family is vital to attract the kind of people who are forward thinking and capable (they would never sign with a lower evolution organization if they didn’t have to). And also why this transition will cause more tension, not less.

But when you think of it, it is only in this stage that voicing your concerns is even acceptable. And if we look (again) at how groups develop, we know that openness, trust, talking about stuff, feedback et al are the tools we need to handle our conflicts in a sensible manner, which leads to potential evolution towards “higher” stages of group development.

One problem is that there’s a limit to how much lip the parents can take. When things get ugly, it’s so much easier to revert to “because I told you so”. Which is also why speaking up and questioning the management team is sometimes punished, or at least frowned upon. When that happens, the management team sets boundaries.

Letting go of the last remnants of concentrated power is difficult. And quite like parents who wonder what their purpose in life is once their children are all grown up, the management team must suffer a similar crisis.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

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