The Organizational Family

Newsletter 27

Aristotle believed that the family is the foundation upon which all other organizations in the world are built. In other words, a family is a microcosm of all other systems of governance. This is most certainly true for business organizations, and some interesting parallels emerge.

As I’ve noted before, good leaders tend to have many of the same skills as good parents. The relationship dynamics caused by the power differential between parents and their children are similar in many ways to the relationships between leaders and their subordinates.

These parallels become even more interesting when mixed with some of the basic principles of Family Systems Theory, in which a family is viewed as an integrated and interdependent system of individuals. These individuals tend to take on specialized roles within the family system that help to meet the overall needs of the family, and these roles tend to be very similar in organizations. Who do you recognize from your organization in the following family roles?

Hunter-Gatherer: ambitious, aggressive, closes the sale
Examples: Entrepreneur, top salesperson

Nurturer-Supporter: supports others in achieving their potential
   Examples: Human Resource professional, COO who specializes in management issues

Angel-White Sheep: pleaser, follows all the rules
   Examples: the team “yes” person, Mr./Ms. Goody Two Shoes

Devil-Black Sheep: contrarian, constantly rebels against all the rules
   Examples: the team “no” person, Mr./Ms. Rebel Without A Cause

This specialization in roles is normal, and can be a constructive distribution of labor resulting in greater productivity and benefits for the family or organizational system. However, in the extreme the individuals in a system can become so specialized that they do harm to themselves and to the entire system. For example, Black Sheep can be so focused on rebelling against the rules that they fail to do what is in their best interests or the best interests of the organization.

Overspecialization usually happens when there is an overabundance of fear in the system. A dictatorial parent or leader can create a fearful environment through imposing too much structure, which leaves system members feeling timid and with little sense of choice or control over their lives. By the same token, a leader or parent who is too “hands off” can create a fearful environment through imposing too little structure on the environment, which leaves systems members worrying about the boundaries of their responsibility and authority.

What happens that might not be so obvious is that when one member of the system changes, then the entire system changes and adjusts to reestablish equilibrium. For example, in families and organizations there often is a Black Sheep member of the system who is identified as needing “help” because of his/her negative ways.

However, if you only “fix” the Black Sheep, then other potentially more serious problems spring up. This is because the Black Sheep was the release valve to express the pent up tension of all the unexpressed and unresolved conflicts in the system. For instance, if the Black Sheep is negative about the boss’ dictatorial approach, and the Black Sheep is “rehabilitated” or replaced, then much more serious damage is likely to occur to the morale and effectiveness of the organization through the boss’ missteps.


Technique #1: Avoid creating an overly fearful and polarized organizational environment by being a leader that cares about others and that provides a healthy level of structure.

Technique #2: Remember that all organizational system members are unique individuals with unique talents and passions, and treat them accordingly.

Technique #3: Understand your organizational system as a whole before making significant changes in the ranks of the individual members.

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