The Startup As a (dys)functional Family

It begins when the future startup CEO (mother) meets the co-founder (father). A love around an idea binds them to the point where they decide to spend most of their time with each other.

Love at first sight

This relationship can be compared to any relationship in our current western culture (marriage). The co-founders share their hopes and dreams and move in together into their first home (office). It is not much at first. A basement, a windowless room, but it does not matter because they are happy. Then at a networking event after party, they meet their first employee (child). This employee is attracted, maybe because in his or her previous job he / she was stuck in a cubicle doing things that were not creative or inspiring enough. Now, these two parents promise a free world full of wonder and joy and say ‘join us, not as a number on a sheet, but as a member of our family’. This is how the employee got adopted.

They are poor but they are happy, together. Everyday they decide how to live their own lives. ‘We are going to do things differently’ they say. ‘Not like our previous jobs’ (grandparents). So the journey starts. They adopt two more children in the next year and an uncle (freelancer). They have chosen each other based on values and a need for freedom. They seem happy, but … are they?

Bonded by blood

We do not choose our parents, siblings or aunts and uncles. I feel like in this modern life there is an ongoing complaint that we just have to do with the family we get at birth. Having said that I also see a trend where people try and find their own, non-blood related, family. People are looking for friends with whom they have a deep connection. A place where the trend to replace family by blood with an artificial one seems particularly strong in the startup world.

CEO’s all around the world talk about their startup family where contracts are based on trust, work hours – on honesty, and pay on fairness. The startup CEO tries to do something more humane. He or she treats the employees like his or her own family. He knows their hobbies and together they participate in the survival, that is, growing a startup. This as a counterculture also to the big corporations who sometimes have reduced their employees to numbers on a sheet.

In the end

In the end, it is very possible that the same problems start to arise as in a usual family. This is because the same behavior is set at the beginning. A few key promises or values seem to be: honesty, safety, loyalty, and trust – words that are often used to describe the ‘perfect’ family. Many families like to believe they have these values but in reality, they might not.

Why does this happen? Why do we set out to create something ‘better’ only to create a paradox where eventually the opposite happens. So yes, you can walk around in the office and express your emotions but it might hinder action since you are given a freebie to not ‘feel’ like working. This can be good in certain situations to lower stress but in others, there is a deadline that is coming up and that ‘thing’ needs to happen right now.

Fully expressing and attaching yourself seems to work best in an environment that is made safe. Safety does not come into existence simply because one preaches ‘you can express yourself here’. Creating security for exploration in a family happens by attention as a parent. In Mary Ainsworth’s (1971, 1978) ‘observational study of individual differences in attachment’ it clearly shows how children respond to an unsafe environment. In the experiment, a mother leaves the child alone or with a stranger and creates an unsafe environment and the baby starts crying immediately only to be consolidated by the mother.

I feel that one of the reasons why creating a family environment is followed by the same challenges as a family by blood is… drumroll please… because we are humans. Yes, I know that seems like a cliche but that might be why at companies we tend to digress from what is human. Sometimes with a positive outcome where conflict is deflected since people understand that it is important to be professional and sometimes with a negative outcome where employees feel like there is no opportunity to be themselves.

But what is your point, Joppe?

My point is that, while I believe it is important to create a safe space at work for people to express themselves it is equally important to know when to be professional. As an ex-sociotherapist, I also think this is a great way on how to improve actual family life (bonded by blood). Being human, seems to me, is as much about expressing yourself fully as it is at maintaining control.  Expressing yourself fully is creative, fun and passionate and controlling yourself is safety, long-term planning, and investment.

I would not argue for a company that mimics a family nor would I argue for a company that mimics the opposite. To be sustainable and innovative in the future we need both. As with all things in life, in the end, it is about perfect balance.

This post was originally published on Joppe’s personal blog. Subscribe for more stories from Joppe here.