Family communication lessons

8 pink and green birthday candles

Today is my dad’s 70th birthday. Yesterday, to celebrate, we held a party lunch for him at a local pub. The extended family – kids, grandkids, aunties, uncles, cousins – came together for Sunday lunch and birthday cake and to raise a glass to his good health.

With 25 of us in the room, all related and connected in different ways, there was a lot of noise. Lots of chatter. Lots of laughter. Even some singing! We’re not a perfect family, by any means – who’d want to be?! – and there were a few miscommunications (I really must learn to enunciate more clearly and differentiate between ‘Dad’ and ‘Dan’ to avoid confusion). But all in all, it was a harmonious afternoon and much fun was had by all.

The notion of family is something that is sometimes talked about within organisations. Leaders in particular can be fond of saying “We’re all one big happy family here!” Sometimes I hear that said and it doesn’t quite ring true, as if someone on high has decreed that this is what should be said and everyone else has to toe the party line. Sometimes it can sound a bit scary, a bit cult-like – in these circumstances, my reaction is that I have a family, thank you, and I like to spend time with them away from my workplace. I don’t need colleagues to replace the family I already have.

But the organisations that get this right take the good bits of being part of a family and apply that to the working world. Last week I had the good fortune to visit the headquarters of Ella’s Kitchen, the organic baby food company. I had heard their Managing Director give a very inspiring talk about their company values and culture and I wanted to see for myself how it works in practice. They kindly allowed me to visit, see and feel the difference of their working environment and learn more about how they create their culture.

For a company that is named after the founder’s daughter, it is perhaps apt that a family atmosphere is part of who they are. When I asked about the secret of their success, I was told that the founder had thought about the kind of workplace he wanted his company to be from the very start. And everything I saw and heard felt genuine, authentic, real. Everyone has lunch together once a week, they all know what they’re doing and why and each person is given the opportunity to input into decisions.

So how do you create an organisational culture that feels like a family, without being too cheesy or insincere? Here are a few things I think you need to consider:

  • Shared purpose – yesterday we were all at the pub to make sure Dad had a good time. At successful organisations, everyone understands the business strategy and vision and what they are there to do. Take time to help everyone in your organisation understand the bigger purpose and their own contribution to it.
  • Connections and shared history – there will always be times when individuals bicker or have different opinions, but by and large, people are people and like to feel part of something and connected to others. These connections build up stories and shared experiences, which can be shared with new people who join the group. Use opportunities to tell stories of what happens in your organisation and cement those connections in people’s heads.
  • Language and meaning – the words that people choose to use can create a shared understanding of something. At Ella’s Kitchen there is a very specific, child-like and joyous use of language, from team names to meeting room signs, that makes everything clear and accessible for all. Find the right words to describe the work that your organisation does and the environment you work in.
  • Recognising the whole person – we all have things we’re good at, things we’re not so good at. We all have interests outside the group, whether that be our home-life, our hobbies, other friends. In a family, we put up with all sorts of ‘funny little ways’ from family members; successful organisations recognise and celebrate the whole person. Colleagues chat to each other about all the things that they are interested in, not just work topics – this makes individuals feel valued and recognised.

I’m sure there are lots of things about families that organisations wouldn’t want to recreate, but there are plenty of positives too. What can you create at your organisation? Give me a call if you’d like to explore this further.

Until next time

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