Freeing the beast
Members of 3rd Platoon, Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, 172nd Infantry Brigade, work at dislodging their M-777 155mm howitzer from the three-foot deep hole it dug its spades into after firing several rocket assisted projectiles Sept. 3. The huge weapon weighs 9,000 pounds and can launch projectiles more 30 kilometers.

When you consider your organization and its people, do you consider them a family or a team? It may seem trivial and many leaders may not put much brainpower toward considering what noun to use. Some may even use the words interchangeably.

I believe that the descriptor you use implies a number of assumptions about how your people work together and thus has a major effect on your organization’s interpersonal dynamics. Being considered a family may inherently authorize your people to do certain things, while being a team may unconsciously deter them from those same behaviors. What you call your organization can have major impacts on your climate and certain behavioral norms. Thus, it is rather important to select the right word to describe your organization so that you set the appropriate tone and precedence.

I first offer thoughts from two books that are high on my recommended list for leader development; one supports for a family attitude, while the other adamantly argues against being a family. Finally, I cover thoughts to consider when determining to be a family or team; think on these and determine what is most important and most needed for your organization. Ultimately, I find that there is no right answer. It is a matter of what you value most and the kind of results you want to see from your people. I just encourage others to deliberately consider, and even talk to your people about, what type of organization we want to be: a family or a team

We Are A Family…

In his book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle’s research revealed that the best teams he observed used the word family. He states that “When you ask people inside highly successful groups to describe their relationship with one another, they all tend to choose the same word. The word is not friends or team or tribe or any other equally plausible term. The word they use is family.” He references observed examples of high-performing organizations, such as SEAL Team Six, where members call each other brothers. They claim that the teamwork goes way beyond “team” and overlaps into the rest of people’s lives, and enjoy knowing that you can take a huge risk and these people will be there to support you no matter what.

…Actually, We Are A Team

Conversely, in his book, Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need, Todd Henry strongly counters the idea of an organization being a family. He argues against a family culture by saying, “…I shudder when I hear a leader refer to a team or the company culture as ‘family.’ No, no, no. You are not family. Families are connected by blood or by bonds that can’t be broken, and membership in a family is unconditional. However, membership in your organization requires adoption of a certain set of behaviors and subscription to cultural ideals and norms. If at any point someone violates those norms, his connection to your team is subject to termination. It is misleading and maybe even a little manipulative to your team members to give them the impression that they are part of something like a family. It is often insecurity on the part of a leader that leads to such sentiments.”

Why Does It Matter?

So, what? Why is this important? As I stated earlier, I believe that the descriptor you use for your organization and people implies certain things about how you interact; it impacts what behavior or attitudes are accepted or not.


There are a number of benefits that being a family can infer for your organization:

  • More innovation. Being a familial group inherently authorizes people to take more risks toward innovative ends since a family is founded on giving one another permission and a willingness to be vulnerable and accepting of each other.
  • Leadership is founded on influence, not authority. John Maxwell claims that leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less. As a family, relationships are founded more on influence achieved rather than formal authority or power; everyone tends to earn the right to speak into each other’s’ lives rather than rely on formal authority or positions. This creates a more psychologically safe environment with higher degrees of mutual trust and respect.
  • Improved collaboration. Interactions are more intimate, less formal, and tend to be high in the supportive behaviors for developmental experiences. Familial interaction patterns may often include close physical proximity, high amounts of eye contact, physical touches (handshakes, hugs, fist bumps), lots of questions, intense active (emphatic) listening, and continuous courtesies (thank-yous, etc.).

However, I also see a few concerns that can surface as a family:

  • Close familial ties may discourage people from holding each other accountable to standards and performance expectations. Your people may be more willing to tolerate others’ poor performance, dysfunctional norms, or lapses in character in an effort to maintain the feel-good family feelings in the workplace. The family environment may encourage loyalty to people rather than to the organization and espoused shared values.
  • Potential lack of clarity in purpose. Families can often exist to deal with the challenges each day brings and to take care of one another without much thought or action towards why they exist. Being a family does not necessarily lead to a clear and defined purpose or high levels of organizational performance. Familial organizations can fall victim to a fraternity mindset, where people exist to merely care for one another with little consideration toward organizational purpose and performance.


On the other hand, being a team brings a number of positive norms:

  • High alignment to espoused values and norms. A team is formed based on purpose and goals, while a family might be more formed around the people in it. When building a team for purpose and goal achievement, members tend to be precisely clear and in-line with the espoused vision, values, goals, and norms.
  • Natural orientation to performance. Teams tend to have a life-span (start and end) and generally exist to do one of two things: perform or learn. A team’s purpose and performance expectations tend to be very clear and as a result, people’s individual and collective orientation toward that defined effort proves to be naturally higher.
  • Effectiveness and efficiency. A family could continue exist despite little to no performance and no systems in place to maximize efficiency of day-to-day business. Teams, however, survive on effectiveness and efficiency. If a team cannot prove to be either, often more likely than not, something (or someone) is going to change.

Yet, a few dilemmas to consider for your team:

  • Member over-conformity. In order to remain on the team, members may choose to conform to norms rather than accept prudent risk to innovate within the team. Member conformity may lead to a lack of or unhealthy interpersonal conflict; groupthink is also a risk to maintain that conformity and the high levels of team effectiveness and efficiency.
  • High reliance on structure and formality. Unlike in a family, teams tend to rely more on formal structure and organizational charts (or chain of command). Leadership and decision-making will likely be based more in formal authority, position, and title / rank, rather than in achieved influence with other members. This aids in the efficiency aspect, but can counter effectiveness and innovation.

Well, We Are A…

I truly believe there is no right answer. I think leaders and members need to consider the season their organization is in and other contextual factors to meet the most important needs of the group. Coming back to Todd Henry’s, Herding Tigers book, he states that “Yes, there needs to be accountability when things go wrong. Yes, it’s unacceptable to consistently fail. However, you can hold compassion and accountability hand in hand. In fact, you must.” Compassion relates more toward a family emotion where accountability is a team’s cornerstone. Maybe there is value in a “hybrid” model where leaders and members speak ‘truth in love’ to one another. This ‘truth in love’ communicates: “I’m going to hold you accountable and square you away…because I love you, I care about you, and I want us to succeed together.”

So, what are we?

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  1. Thought provoking. When reading the analogy of each perspective I’d have to admit, I’ve do each simultaneously. My inner circle ( Key leaders and certain staff ) fit more into the family arena and those outside the inner circle into the team.

  2. A cracking post; Ive never thought of the differences between the two and to understand those differences is very useful. I’d have to agree with Clark and 3x5L – I find a blend of team and family useful in a military context although I tend more towards the family aspects.

    We are lucky in the military as we have an imposed rank structure and discipline system which means that you can instill a family ethos whilst maintaining the more structured and performance aspects of the team. Although you have to work hard and grow your leadership to maintain that balance. Remember George Clooney in The Thin Red Line when he states that he is the Daddy of the company and the Company Seargeant Major is the Mummy? Although a little trite, I often thought of that and thought that there was some truth in it (although my CSM was quite a fierce ‘Mummy’). I know some Mum and Dads that run their family as a well drilled Company Commander and Company Sergeant Major!

    Whilst on operations, I find the family traits absolutely critical to achieving the solid performance desired of the team. Soldiers will go that extra mile to support and back up their ‘brothers’, often putting themselves in harms way, to safe guard the team and those the ‘love’ which leads to mission success. Members of a well drilled team, although they would trust each other empirically, may not necessarily make that sacrifice.

    A great post, thanks.

    1. Chris, great point about being a family while in those deployed environments. I think that really sends the message necessary to support the behaviors we need to take care of our brothers and sisters. Absolutely. Thanks for sharing!

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