Workplace relationships: We are family

Someone has been assigned an additional role at work and it may not be a project or an extra responsibility. The fact is, they have been made the ‘office mum’. Their colleagues behave like siblings, desperately seeking the attention of the father figure chief executive, while ‘mum’ is on hand to remedy any problems with tissues and chocolates from her desk drawer.

Human beings naturally form tribal or family groups, and any group will naturally assign roles – whether this is mother, father, baby, successor. As a species, we also feel comforted by recreating familiar patterns, which is why recreating the family dynamic feels natural. However, it can create its own difficulties, both for line managers and HR professionals.

If someone at work seems to be particularly confrontational or submissive it may be that they are ‘acting out’ the relationship they have with the member you represent in their family of origin. And what if you are restricted by your family role? What if the ‘baby’ of the office is never going to be taken seriously enough to be promoted, or the perceived lack of dynamism in the ‘mum’ means she won’t be asked to handle a high-profile presentation?

Re-allocating desks

Sarah Croom-Johnson (a self-confessed office mother) is the group operations director of PR agency Fishburn Hedges, runner up in the Financial Times’ Best Workplace in the UK report, and believes that the company’s policy of re-allocating desks every nine months or so helps avoid ‘families’ forming, which makes for a happier and less claustrophobic workforce.

“We find people learn lots of different things from each other. It’s really healthy,” she says. “Everyone hates the office move before it happens but almost immediately they settle back down and are happy again.”

Some people feel very comfortable with their roles. Noel Lorde, for example, is team leader at London-based call centre Make It Cheaper, and is office ‘dad’ to his 20 staff, who have an average age of 25.

“I find I have to do everything from fixing the electrics, chairs and computers to dealing with the day-to-day disciplinary traumas. They go to my female colleague, the office mum, for boyfriend trouble and I get to do the tellings off.”

Lorde believes the relative youth of his staff is behind their need for a father figure.

“This is usually a first job for them and they have no office decorum. Obviously, we have to set rules, and boundaries naturally get pushed. Being daddy can work to my advantage as they do show me that emotional side sometimes, which is nice because it shows I am not a threat, and then when they say or do certain things it helps to have that insight.”

Frank Hanna is a founder of the Mediation Agency and has come across the family dynamic in countless professional situations.

“It tends to follow an age differential, so the older person becomes father/mother figure and that is largely because they are considered not threatening and they often intervene in squabbles between the perceived siblings. There’s no harm in it, as the workplace usually falls naturally into that position so that breeds its own contentment.”

Attention seeking

Just like real parenting, the dynamics are not at all straightforward.

Lorde says: “The staff will play me and the office mum off against each other. Certain individuals will vie for attention from me, and they will act up if I am with someone else to try and get my attention. I really believe my job involves more parenting skills than anything else.”

Hanna believes that most people regard it as a compliment to be awarded a family role by their peers.

“For most people, it’s a promotion. It’s a position you occupy as a result of your skills. Many problems in the office are probably solved very quickly by the fact that a mummy/daddy situation exists.”

And if one of the office ‘parents’ has a lengthy absence from the office, how does the ‘family’ cope? Hanna’s suggestion is to “talk to the staff and say ‘OK, we are all going to miss Maureen when she is off on sick leave. Who would you like to look after you in her absence?’.”

When she worked for a disability rights organisation, Marie Pye was a classic ‘office mum’, and she got rapidly disenchanted with her role.

“I had four different kinds of painkillers, tampons and a cystitis cure in my filing cabinet, plus two spare outfits in case anyone had a media interview at short notice,” she says.

But being a ‘mum’ began to unsettle her to the extent that she actually went freelance to get away from the responsibility of her office ‘family’.

“Other managers seemed to have adult relationships with their staff, but the people I had would cry in their one-to-ones and tell me how horrible their childhoods were. HR told me I was being given the needy people because I could manage them.”

Pye is now a freelance equal opportunities consultant. “Only having to worry about myself now is fantastic,” she says. “When you are the only one doing all the mothering for a whole organisation it’s horrible – it would be much healthier to spread aspects of the role around.”

HR professionals, keen to shed their ‘tea and sympathy’ role, will doubtless shun the office mother role. But Pye says it’s not all bad.

“Be tougher,” she advises. “Although I would rather be a nice person, I think. There are worse things you can be called in the office than ‘mum’.”

How to manage family dynamics

  • Encourage colleagues not to be confrontational, but to mention concerns. If someone’s feeling patronised, they should approach it in non-threatening language, by introducing an imaginary third party to the situation. For example: ‘I wonder what someone would think if they heard this conversation?’’

  • Never underestimate the power of humour when dealing with a potentially tricky situation

  • Speak briefly with someone who’s not directly involved and who could offer unbiased advice

How to avoid family ties

  • Suggest the ‘naughty little sibling’ approaches discussions in a rational way, rather than resorting to arguments

  • Encourage the ‘little sister’ to take on more responsibility

  • Avoid family typecasting by encouraging staff to be professional at all times rather than becoming ‘best friends’ with all of their colleagues

  • Be aware of the family ‘script’ in your organisation and try to encourage staff not to ‘act out’ family issues

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