When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999, I was looking for community. And boy did I find it, when I took a fundraising job at a small, scrappy, but ambitious nonprofit.
I felt like I had finally found “my people.” People who were smart and passionate about justice, who worked hard, and who were willing to mentor and guide me in my earliest days as an activist, and nonprofit professional. I felt valued, and a warm, fuzzy sense of belonging.
So I really get why so many nonprofits cultivate that family or community vibe. After all, the values that draw us to this work -- social justice, compassion, freedom, community, sustainability -- run pretty deep. So it makes sense when we have that strong sense of connection and loyalty to our colleagues.
And that’s a good thing, right? Yes!
And, well, it’s also complicated.
Human fireball and nonprofit management genius Kishshana Palmer and I touched on this topic near the end of our conversation last week on the Dialogue Lab podcast. It was an incredible conversation, and you can listen to it here.
There are a few downsides that often come with those nonprofit “family vibes.”
1: An overemphasis on family loyalty and niceness can lead organizations to be far too tolerant of bad behavior and poor performance. And an environment of mediocre standards for some can kill everyone’s motivation.
2: Mission-driven organizations run the risk of becoming too central in the lives of their employees. While a healthy sense of ownership and investment in the organization’s mission is a really good thing, too much of that can add to the nonprofit epidemic of workaholism and “martyritis” (thank you, Kishshana, for that word).
And that can also fuel conflict. If you were dedicating 60 hours a week at an organization that is not only your source of employment, but is also your main source of community and meaning in life, you might start to become hyper-opinionated about every decision being made, too.
3: A family-like environment is fertile ground for a culture of bad boundaries to take root. This can show up a number of ways, from oversharing, to a pattern of insisting that people put the organization above their own needs, even to abuses of power like bullying and sexual harassment.
So here are a few practices that can help you maximize the upsides -- while minimizing the downsides -- of a community-like environment at work.
1) Emphasize “caring” over “liking.”
In a community-like setting, we often see our working relationships through the lens of friendship, where a key factor that ties us together is how well we like each other.
And that’s a problem for two reasons.
One: because it means I’m way too worried about being liked by you to be honest with you
Two: because it makes it hard for me to work with you if I just don’t like you
What I often suggest to supervisors caught up in the “likeability” frame, is to start thinking about caring, rather than liking.
What that means is that it’s actually ok if, for whatever reasons, our personalities don’t mix well. We don’t need to have chemistry in order for our differing perspectives to compliment each other. We don’t need to be friends in order to work well together.
What does help though -- especially if I am supervising you -- is if I care about you enough to want you to succeed.
Because if I care about your success, then I am willing to be honest with you about where I see you getting in your own way. And maybe I am a bit more willing to hear you out too.
Here is one way to put this into practice:
Once a day for the next two weeks, sit down with a pad and paper to do some honest self-reflecting.
Do you remember any instances in the last 24 hours where you felt concerned about being liked? Really check this out honestly, keeping in mind how common and understandable it is for people to want to be liked.
If so, how did that concern affect your behavior? Did you hold back important feedback? Did you go out of your way to put someone at ease?
And what might you have done differently, if you really didn't care about being liked?
Choose one thing you might have done differently, and if possible, go ahead and do it. (Send me an email or comment here to let me know how it goes!)
2) Model in yourself -- and encourage in others -- what it means to have a well-rounded life.
Read for fun. Cultivate close friendships with people you don’t work with. Support causes other than the one you work on. Plan in time off that you can use to spend time with loved ones, cultivate other interests, set personal wellness goals, etc.
I realize this is easier said than done, and is probably something you have heard a million times before. But it’s so, so important to your wellbeing, as well as your organizations' wellbeing.
Because a boss who role models a well-rounded life is an EXCELLENT defense against the kind of myopia and burnout that takes root inside organizations where the leaders seem to have lost all perspective on life.
3) RESPECT that every individual draws their boundaries differently.
Because the heightened danger in a family-like environment is a culture that uses values like loyalty, transparency, and being counter-culture to coerce individuals to conform to the organization’s dominant style of boundary management over their own.
For example: Some people feel very comfortable sharing their emotions and fears in an open way. And others really, really, don’t. And that is a legitimate choice!
And while an organizational culture that prizes a stiff upper lip can feel stifling and oppressive to some (myself included), a culture that overemphasizes sharing can feel coercive to people who -- for reasons that may be personal, cultural, or situational -- prefer to stay mum.
Here are a few things that help:
Take stock of your own biases and preferences around boundaries (like disclosure), so you can own them fully, and avoid projecting them onto others.
Take stock of the organization’s culture, and consider the impact on individuals. What kinds of boundaries are rewarded or penalized? What happens when people say “no?” What happens when people share something personal? What values around boundaries are implicitly emphasized by the organization?
Make sure your organization is complying with regulations requiring sexual harassment training, and has clear policies that draw bright lines around behaviors that are clearly out of bounds, while illuminating some of the gray areas.
-- So that's this week's Antidote to Burnout. ----
I’d love to hear from you: Does your nonprofit feel like a community? What do you love about that, and what drives you up the wall?