Is a company like family?

By | March 9, 2014

Can a company really be anything like a family? Is drawing the comparison naive, or a selfish attempt at employee manipulation by a cynical CEO? I use the word “family” for Atomic Object both casually and seriously, but I’ve always had a small degree of discomfort with the comparison. This post is my attempt at thinking that through.

Here are the salient characteristics of families, as I see them:

  • care deeply about each other
  • sacrifice for each other
  • play together
  • work together
  • support, protect, and help each other
  • share food and other resources
  • show up at significant life events
  • know each other well, and in many dimensions
  • socialize and celebrate together
  • seek to perpetuate themselves
  • have a strong sense of identity (name, crest, etc)
  • have shared values, history, and rituals
  • tolerate each others shortcomings
  • drive each other nuts, sometimes
  • have both living and dead members
  • don’t chose their members

I think it’s pretty clear that any group of people, as they grow larger, exhibit fewer of these characteristics. It’s probably safe to say that no large companies operate like families, at least across their entire organization. I’ve also heard plenty of stories of small companies that don’t exhibit many of these traits, either.

Like a family

If I include deceased members, Atomic Object is approximately the same size as my extended family (parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses, and their kids). When I evaluate Atomic against the list above, I think “check, check, and check”. When I compare to my own extended family, I see as many matches for Atomic as for my family, and truth be told, I’m closer to some Atoms than I am to some family members. I certainly spend a lot more time with many Atoms than I do with some of my family. (For reference, I have a close, happy family with fairly broad geographical distribution and stay in contact with all living members.) I love my family, and I also love some of my fellow Atoms.

Atomic certainly has a very strong sense of identity and works to perpetuate itself. It’s not uniform, but there are many Atoms who care deeply about each other. We work and play together regularly. We share meals, and profits, and tools, and household stuff. We help each other frequently. We watch out for each other, and there have been times when we’ve protected each other. I can think of many examples of Atoms being tolerant, as well as being driven crazy. We don’t, thank heavens, have any deceased members yet, but I suspect someday when we do we’ll talk about them in those terms.

Atomic’s history is much shorter than my family’s history, but our values and culture are actually more crisply defined and identifiable than that of my extended family. My family does not have a crest or coat-of-arms; Atomic has a logo.

Not like a family

One big difference between Atomic and a biological family is that we chose our members. We are a family of intention, not birthright. On the other hand, families, at least as I think of them, are not entirely closed to changes in membership. Marriage, long-term romantic relationships, “adopted” grandparents, so-called Dutch uncles—these are ways families grow beyond blood relatives. As with divorce, letting an employee go may or may not sever the relationship entirely. And while a blood connection cannot be undone the way employment can be ended, I’ve met people who are not active members of their families—they retain a connection by definition, but they aren’t connected in practice.

There are other differences between a biological family and a company. These have to do with the company’s existence:

  • a single, common purpose
  • centralized governance
  • a goal to make a profit

Families serve higher purposes of societal organization, individual fulfillment, and continuation of our species. Yet by comparison, viewed through the lens of purpose and intention, most extended families seem like loose collections of independent people who are neither organized around nor governed to a specific purpose.

My answer

My conclusion is that companies can in fact have much in common with extended families. Atomic is one of these companies. Comparing us to a family isn’t specious or manipulative. We are like an extended family with a well-defined purpose.

Carl Erickson (83 Posts)

Carl is the CEO and cofounder of Atomic Object, a software product development company with offices in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor. Learn more about Carl.


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