Being a great place to work is important for recruitment and retention of staff in the not for profit sector, especially for smaller organizations that don’t pay as much as the larger ones. Also remembering their grassroots origins, it comes naturally to these places to say their work setting is like a family; a place where people care about each other.

My advice is to give pause and allow reflection on how this claim of being a family potentially causes confusion and hurt among your staff. After all, they chose to apply to work at your place and you chose them to work for you, with expectations established under an employment agreement.

Ultimately, there may be actions you have to take to meet the expectations of your funder, and meet your obligations as an incorporated entity, that override the vision of being a secure work environment in which people can stay forever. If staying forever is what you meant by being a family. Rather than striving to be like a family, manager clarity and competence have been shown to be significant drivers of staff motivation and retention, as reported in a past blog.

The ambiguity of the meaning of ‘being like a family’ is the biggest hurdle when the family metaphor is used. An article In the Harvard Business Review, Your Company is not a Family by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh, provides a humorous example of the confusion that can result:

“In a real family, parents can’t fire their children. Try to imagine disowning your child for poor performance: “We’re sorry Susie, but your mom and I have decided you’re just not a good fit. Your table-setting effort has been deteriorating for the past 6 months, and your obsession with ponies just isn’t adding any value. We’re going to have to let you go. But don’t take it the wrong way; it’s just family.”

Yet, I do understand that beyond accountability we wish to develop an organization culture that gives people a sense of belonging. My preferred metaphor is simply being a team. And, being a great team, at that. A team recognizes shared goals and everyone’s interdependence. Every great team has its individual story. Tolstoy wrote, ‘All happy families are alike; unhappy families are unhappy in their own way’. I think it is the reverse for teams: all unhappy ones are alike; the successful ones each have their own unique story about how they worked together to overcome adverse odds and achieve success.

Management leadership to build a great team will help to retain staff and achieve success in what has been a prolonged period of funding restraints. The report, Shaping the Future: Leadership in Ontario’s Non Profit Labour Force, identifies key issues that are barriers to retention: non-competitive salaries, uncertainty of ongoing funding, and excessive workloads. To deal with these retention issues we need to earn the trust of our funders by achieving quality outcomes and meeting productivity targets; and we need to maintain the trust of our staff by being clear on expectations as well as providing respect and support of them as valued members of the team.

So, unlike the family metaphor, I recommend having a clear and unambiguous framework of understanding what managers and staff owe each other. The following list is adapted from Pat Nickerson’s, Four-Star Management Workshop, a helpful management book I discovered when I started my journey as a manager.

What managers owe staff:
  1. Direction: clear, specific, consistent with announced goals
  2. Information: on which risks/opportunities require a change of direction and why
  3. Support: adequate facilities, funds, and staff to get goals met
  4. Feedback: objective and specific performance evaluation with room for employee response, and coaching when the employee falters
  5. Respect: for the employee’s human dignity and achievements
What staff owe managers:
  1. Performance: careful and complete to meet or exceed stated requirements
  2. Information: on risks/opportunities clear to the employee, relevant to the manager
  3. Patience: consideration of the manager’s time demands and constraints
  4. Commitment to the organization’s goals: unstinting investment of time and talent to achieve them (or open-mindedness to be convinced)
  5. Respect: for the manager’s human dignity and position in the hierarchy
What neither owes the other:
  1. Mutual psychoanalysis, mind-reading
  2. Personal affection
  3. Allegiance to the same personal values
  4. Self-sacrifice for one another’s ‘good’
  5. Perfection

The first two lists delineate the type of expectations in the work environment that do not typically pertain to the family. And, the list of what neither owes the other is most obviously problematic in the work environment, but characteristic of many families.  The total list of obligations provides a useful guide to teams in any work setting. Any organization culture you choose to nurture caring, compassion and belonging should complement these obligations, not conflict with them.