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
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