On Teams, Families and Crews

I was talking recently to a startup founder/CEO who was telling me how he finds the idea of trying to build a “corporate family” really distasteful, despite it being an ideology sadly prevalent in Silicon Valley tech. He talked about the toxicity of wanting to extract unwavering loyalty from employees, of expecting workers to sacrifice themselves for a company that is willing to replace whenever it becomes convenient or profitable. He talked also about how when you build such relationships with employees, “it can make hard decisions even harder”.

I found myself sympathetic to his position, though not exactly in agreement. The topic has been swirling in the back of my mind.

I’ve seen first-hand the harm that the culture of the corporate fauxmily causes. I’ve seen it used to exploit and bully employees (“if you’re not willing to do this for the company, you must not be passionate enough”). I’ve seen the heartbreak when those in charge make decisions that favor the business, with no regard for the wellbeing of the employees. I’ve seen the deep feeling of betrayal when a company veers away from its stated “mission” to appease investors looking for more profits. In recent years, I’ve found myself reminding teammates that a company doesn’t have a heart and that it doesn’t care for you, and that they should prioritize taking care of themselves, their careers and their lives.

At the same time, I crave working in a team, and I think I’m not alone in this. I want to feel connected to my teammates. I want to know that I’m appreciated as a contributor, and that together we are making something a little bigger than ourselves. Maybe it is something more like a crew than a family, or maybe it is simply a less-dysfunctional family.

As an engineer that engages in creative work and problem-solving, it is not possible to do good work if you don’t enjoy a minimum level of safety within your crew. This minimum level is going to vary for different people, but we all have a minimum that must be met — as humans, our higher-order functions can’t fully engage if we don’t feel safe.

We can build relationships with each other, create shared understanding and safety, without needing to couch it in harmful notions of loyalty to The Company. I’ve built many relationships at work that have outlasted a particular job — some of them have stretched into other companies, others into my non-work life. These relationships have given me what any good human-to-human relationship gives us: comfort in hard times, support and encouragement to grow into a better version of myself, the multiplied joy of shared accomplishments, and, ultimately, connection and love. I wouldn’t be the person and the software engineer I am today without these relationships. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

As for the danger of “making hard decisions even harder”, I think that CEO isn’t exactly wrong. Building connections with employees will make it harder to fire them, or even just to deny them a raise or a longer vacation. But I think he is mistaken in believing that suppressing the drive for human connection is a viable solution for making hard decisions easier. Those decisions are hard for a reason, and trying to make them easier in this way is trying to deny some basic truths about the human experience. And worse: making what is a hard decision seem easy is bound to lead to poor decision-making. The answer is to learn to deal with those hard decisions more skillfully, not to suppress a core part of ourselves.

random thought