Work Systems as Family Systems


Because the purpose of any social system-which families and workplaces both are-is to evoke between its members a shared reality and create a product of some kind, the family and the workplace are similar. However, the family distinguishes itself from all other social systems in two ways: a) membership is virtually permanent whereas in organizations there are routine means of termination and b) relationships are principally affectional in nature compared to conditional loyalty based on reciprocal value found in the workplace. Work groups also usually have a larger membership than families.


The family and work unit are committed to the physical security of all their members. Work provides the means for families to insure that basic needs of food and shelter are available. Fringe benefits such as health insurance also are included to meet this need. Employers recognize that without survival needs being met their employees will not be useful to the organization. The family is motivated by caring for its members while the organization, strictly speaking, cares only for its own existence and not that of individuals.


The family is also concerned with the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual development of its members (viz., its product) and, therefore, creates an environment where one can feel valued. People take this same need to the workplace and, depending on the organization, can continue to develop as persons and feel a sense of value. Unfortunately, the product of most organizations is a profit or task and they are not in the business to develop employees' potentials. Individuals who place themselves in the position of validation from a job can suddenly be. wondering about their worth as persons when they are laid off.


In organizations participants enter as adults, not infants. They have set job descriptions. Roles in families are not formally described and, in fact, vary over time. No family relationships, except marriage (and that is often influenced by extended family events), are entered into by choice. Work is always initiated by people pursuing job opportunities out of financial need or that appeal to them. Families go through a predictable life cycle caused by family members entering and exiting, due to individual development of its members. Business cycles are not anticipated and can vary with interest rates, shifting technology, competition, etc. Families may be dysfunctional, but they never go out of existence which can occur to a business when it fails.


In a family a shameful act reverberates through generations. Actions in an organization that are exploitative are allowed and even expected to get the job done. There is a sense of diminished personal accountability and responsibility at work.


The vertical structure of business has much in common with the intergenerational structure of the family. Transference can occur, for example, as child and parent authority positions are triggered between junior and senior executives. This vertical hierarchy is also conducive to setting up triangles or relationships between three people both in the family and at work (e.g., two parents and a child, a supervisor and two subordinates). Triangles seem to cause dysfunctional patterns of passing stresses downward and blocking communication upward. Researchers have found people to behave in triangles at work in the same manner as they did in their family of origin triangles. They recommend forming work groups that are autonomous, nonhierarchical, and equalitarian to rid the structure of family baggage.


In contemporary society individuals must be able to balance the demands of both the work system and the family system. While interacting between these two systems, people also look to perform and produce as they see fit rather than by family voices from the past or cues of a supervisor who triggers former family messages. Researchers describe invisible parameters, which are a multiple of factors (e.g., sibling rank, family expectations, financial status) combined to establish a designation of what individuals are to do in life and how they should do it. These parameters are "invisible," because they often impose their effects without a person being aware that they exist at all.


Although workplaces are not organized like families and employers cannot function like parents, much of what goes on at work does bear resemblance to what occurs in a family. The family of origin patterns of attitude and action are not left at home when individuals enter their world of work. In fact, one can easily find actors (viz., supervisors and/or coworkers) at the employment site who are ready and willing to stand in for missing family members. Recent research has discovered the impact of family of origin issues on people's behavior at work. This phenomenon has been coined the term "family role enactment."


Knowledge of the similarities and differences between families and work climates is important to improved productivity in an organization. The recognition of how patterns one has developed from the family of origin are carried over into the workplace cannot be ignored when accessing an individual's approach to work. Awareness of this phenomenon can help employers create work environments conducive to the employees personally and of benefit to the organizations ultimately in reaching their goals.


©2007 Integra Counseling Services
You may copy, forward, or distribute any of the Integra Insights if this copyright notice and full information for contacting Dr Jill Zimmerman are included.
Contact Dr. Zimmerman at

©2010 Integra Counseling Services
522 2nd Street, Suite 3, Hudson, WI 54016
Contact Dr. Zimmerman at or 715.386.9011