May 12, 2017

7 Steps to Building a Family Culture at Your company

This post was originally published on gothamCulture’s blog. As a trusted partner of WeVue, gothamCulture us a leading organizational development firm that works on identifying the underlying causes of organizational obstacles and assisting leaders to develop and execute breakthrough strategies that elevate their performance.

One of the most common things I hear when talking to companies about their culture is, “our culture is like a family” OR “I want our culture to feel like a family.” Clients often cite examples of supporting sick coworkers and open communication, but are there deeper elements of a healthy family structure to consider?

I decided to look at what really makes a successful family and apply those same principles to building a better company based on research from leading psychologists in the fields of marital stability, divorce prediction, and couples therapy.

No one knows what a healthy family looks like better than psychologists John and Julie Gottman.

Thirty-five years ago, the Gottmans founded the “Love Lab” at the University of Washington. At the “lab”, they brought couples into a fake bed and breakfast. Over the course of a weekend, they studied how the pair interacted and measured their physiological responses to the ways they communicated. They then went on to follow those same couples over the course of their relationships, studying how they continued to interact with each other through marriage, divorce, having children, and in some cases, as they approached death.

After years of study, they found that with fifteen minutes of observation they could predict with 94% accuracy what the outcome of a relationship would be.

“The result was that we didn’t get asked over for dinner much,” but they did come up with a theory that can be applied to any organization to create a culture that looks like a healthy family.

Based on this research, the Gottmans outlined seven steps to a healthy relationship that indicated whether or not a couple would stay together. I’ve taken those same steps and shown examples of companies with a family culture that live out these ideals on a day to day basis. I’ve also included some action items as to how you can implement the layers of the relationship house inside your company to create a tighter family.


1) Build Love Maps: The Love Map is a roadmap of someone’s inner psychological world. We recently wrote about creating a culture of empathy through conversation and that’s where building a family company starts.

Our partners at gothamCulture have a 100% distributed team of organizational psychologists and culture consultants. Many of them joined the company recently, and they hadn’t met the rest of the team in person before their recent all-hands meeting in Seattle. In order to build a shared understanding of one another, they mapped their lives onto a timeline of the company history. They saw the generational divides, the differences in worldviews and experiences, where they’d worked and how or why they had made career moves. Through that process, they built a map of their entire company, from the history of the founders as army veterans and former JetBlue employees, to the newest hire who just graduated from a Master’s program in Organizational Psychology.

What you can do: ensure that you understand where your team members have come from. They may have untapped skills and experiences that can not only improve relationships on your team, but they may bring unexpected value in ways you never imagined. Likewise, understanding what motivates your team and how they move through the whole world, not just in and out of your office, is the key to creating an office that feels like a home.

2) Share Fondness and Admiration: Instead of looking for people’s mistakes and then correcting them, healthy couples look for what a partner is doing right and show fondness, appreciation, affection, and respect.

Human beings are critical creatures. In our professional lives, we’re constantly pointing out areas for growth or improvement, critiquing when feedback is often not warranted or solicited. We crave positive feedback, especially those pesky Millennials. Yet, 70% of employees never hear their boss say “thank you”. As managers, we naturally expect people to do things as part of the job. When things aren’t done right, we make that known.

According to a study cited in the Harvard Business Review, the most effective teams give each other more than five positive comments for every one piece of criticism. So while we may think criticism is motivating, the data shows that fondness and admiration are the keys to building a family culture.

Our advisor, Kevin Baer of MPact Group, likes to say that “people think acknowledgements and praise are like a finite bag of peppermints. You only have so many peppermints, so you better not give them all out at once or you’ll run out. Insanity! You can’t run out of praise. Praise is not finite. So acknowledge your team as much as possible.”

What you can do: take an inventory for the next few days on the number of times you tell someone “good job”. Try and increase that number every day. You’ll be amazed at the reaction from people if you’re not someone who openly acknowledges others on a regular basis. Encourage positive feedback on your team, and don’t be afraid to call out those team members that constantly critique without ever dishing out positive reinforcements.

3) Turn Towards: When someone states their needs, a healthy partner acknowledges that bid for connection and turns towards them.

The Gottman’s research was so successful because they documented how everyday, mundane moments impacted a family in the long term. There are countless examples of companies going to bat for their employees when they are in a bind, yet a true family culture is built on small, subtle interactions.

At WeVue, we say good morning to each other every day when we walk into the office and good night every evening when we pack up. We ask each other how the weekend was, and we’re genuinely interested in what the rest of the team does in their free time. When I speak at an event, my teammates try and show up. When a developer hacks something cool in their free time, we all check it out. It’s not just about what we do here; it’s about who we are as people.

What you can do: The next time a team member shares something personal, delve a bit deeper. If they’re running a marathon or playing in a band, show up for them. People want to build family companies, but families don’t just operate inside of a home. Instead, healthy family connections spill out into a community. True family companies interact the same way, connecting outside of the office.

4) The Positive Perspective: problems are approached from a positive perspective and there is an attempt to repair and resolve conflict. Team members are approached as friends, as family members, not as adversaries.

When you walk into a meeting, do the people in the room view you as a friend or as a foe?

Are you “the boss” or a loving mentor?

Are teammates looking to win in a conversation, or are you chatting as friends?

At the famous design firm IDEO, they notoriously line up their offices with Nerf guns. If someone is negatively critiquing someone else, saying “no, but” in response to an idea instead of “yes, and”, anyone else in the office is free to blast them with a Nerf gun. New team members notoriously have their negative perspectives “shot” out of them in Nerf battles.

What you can do: Start your next meeting with the “yes, and” rule. It’s a simple exercise: you tell people that instead of disagreeing openly via language like “no, but” they must acknowledge one another’s ideas and propose other options with a “yes, and”.

Example of a “no, but” conversation:

“We should change that design.”

“I don’t think so. The design is fine, but we might want to hire a new copywriter.”

Example of “Yes, and”

“We should change that design.”

“Yes, that’s an idea worth exploring, and I think we’d see even more value out of hiring a new copywriter.”

5) Manage Conflict: In healthy families, conflict happens and serves a positive function. There are two kinds of problems that cause conflict: solvable problems and perpetual problems.

Perpetual Problems: Some problems are in essence unsolvable, but the dialogue around those problems is critical, and creates an opportunity for growth. At Pepin Distributing, there is no getting around the fact that the entry level jobs are HARD. Associates sling cases of beer for hours, but their business depends on young people who are willing to get down and dirty, stocking shelves and trucks with Budweiser. Without that hard work, the company would go belly up. Yet, there is a clear path through the organization: those same young men can point to upper management having started by moving cases of beers some 30 years ago. The problem of manual labor won’t go away. Instead, it’s addressed so that those who are up to the task can one day be the kings of distributing.

Solvable Problems: Business is about solving problems internally and for customers. In families, problems are solved effectively through compromise, NOT defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and belligerence. When WeVue decided to start developing enterprise software, we were met with an incredible about of new problems we had never before encountered in the consumer market. The move strengthened our family because we were able compromise based on our experience “building love maps”, sharing admiration, turning towards one another, and remaining positive throughout.

What you can do: Identify problems as either solvable or perpetual. In the case of perpetual problems, find ways to address them as opportunities. For Pepin, the hard work allows them the opportunity to find people that are truly committed to their way of life. You don’t get into the family without showing your commitment.

In the case of solvable problems, look at the disagreements on the team as an opportunity to learn. Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz shares that their firm will set up a red team, regardless of how much they all like a given deal, just to poke holes in one partner’s hypothesis. If the partner can’t withstand the onslaught of feedback about what he is bringing to the table, then it’s not the right deal. If he can, and he still wants to move forward, they have an underlying trust built up through their own use of the relationship house. Any single LP can pull the trigger on a deal after it’s been critiqued by the firm without additional approval.

6) Make Life Dreams Come True:  Healthy families are ones that enable life dreams to materialize through open conversation about hopes, values, convictions, and aspirations.

When employees start at our client IT Authorities, a Tampa Based Managed Services Provider, they personally meet with the co-CEO, Jason Caras, to map out their dreams. Some want to quit smoking, buy a house, or get married, while others want his job some day. From there, he is able to cultivate a culture, a set of perks, and career paths that cater towards the dreams of his team. And it all starts with having a conversation where peoples’ motivations are mapped. The “wishes” are turned into actual goals that become reverse engineered.

What you can do: Figure out what your team members dreams are. We are constantly asking each other “why?”. Why are we still working on these problems? Why are we still here? Why! Why! Why! As Socrates said: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” A simple way to start is to ask your team members or potential new hires where they want to be in 1 – 5 – 10 years. The answers will often surprise you and you can take action to help them get there, much like a parent encourages their child’s interests and passions and watches them grow.

7) Create Shared Meaning: Families are built upon a shared understanding of visions, narratives, myths, and metaphors.

Most companies we interact with have a vision, mission, and set of values that live on their corporate website and get brought up once a year at an all hands meeting. Very few instill a true sense of shared meaning and give that a place to live and breathe. Culture is about more than just a value statement, and few families I’ve ever encountered slap a mission on the door of the fridge.

One of the reasons that tech startups are so successful at recruiting top, young talent is that they create a sense of urgency combined with the purpose that we are “changing the world”.

We’re big fans of Dan Gilbert, the CEO of Quicken Loans. He’s built an empire in Detroit of real estate holdings & startup investments through one simple idea: If you come to Detroit and work with us, you’ll be helping to rebuild one of America’s great cities. You’re not working for a loan company, or a restaurant, or a web app startup. You’re actually making America great again and building up a city that needs YOUR help.

What you can do: Tell a story that is bigger than your business. Share client testimonials as often as possible internally so that your team understands how they’re impacting other peoples’ lives. If you’re in business, you generate value, and that value can tell a story that inspires people every day. Share stories about your people. Talk about how an individual went above and beyond, and create a place where myths and legends live.

Building a family company isn’t easy, but the rewards are incredible. Not only will your people love coming to work every day, but you’ll find that they stay with you for decades. Many of the true family organizations we work with have teams of people that have been working there for most of their lives. When they get sick, not only are their real families there, but their work families show up, too.

When John Gottman was pitching his first book to a large New York publishing house, the marketing executive at the table said, “John, if you know so much about relationships, what’s the one thing I can do right now to save my marriage?”.

“You can go home and ask your wife what her dreams are and then help her make them come true.” he replied.

Without a word, the marketing executive got up from the table, got in a cab, drove from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and did just that.

John got the book deal…

And that executive is still married.

We suggest you start there.