Are you one of “us” or are you one of “them?” What’s the real deal here? Can I trust you?
These questions come up every day as we go about our lives and work. At work, the dynamics of relationships are always fluid, shape shifting as roles, connections, and conversations flow. When the company is a family business, an additional force comes into play – are you a family member, “like” a family member, or average member of the team?
I’ve had the pleasure of working in two family businesses and, in actuality, what I considered to be a third due to the degree of nepotism present in the firm. Each role demanded certain things from me, like flexibility, awareness of dynamics, and willingness to be a part of the work “family,” even though there was no blood relation involved. I understand more how the success of the company directly determines whether the family eats, can fund educations, and provide for retirements. There are invisible lines that are to be respected. Learning these boundaries, understanding expectations, and building trust are crucial.
Recently, I was working with a family business facing a significant HR challenge. Their culture is tight knit. The owners feel a deep responsibility for their employees. To them, their team members are an extension of family. They want the best for them, inside and outside work.
They recently discovered that one of the leaders in the company, Tory, was struggling with addiction. It was not the first time Tory had battled the addiction demons. It had happened before with one substance. That time, they rallied around Tory when she had a particularly bad experience with tainted drugs. Her team supported her as well, personally and on the job, while she got back on her feet. Everyone thought all was well.
Tory’s performance, however, started to get a bit shaky over the past six months. “Let’s face it,” they thought, “who hasn’t been shaky, at one time or another, over the last two years?” The Pandemic had hit them all hard. Folks assumed that it was merely Tory’s turn in the barrel, and she too would push through stress of the times we’re living in.
Soon other signs started appearing. Tory disappeared for stretches of time within the building. Behavior was erratic. She asked coworkers to run odd errands for her. Bottles were found. Lots of them.
This brought the Mama Bear out in the owners. Tory was “one of theirs.” The instinct was to help Tory get better and allow her another chance.
The owner brought other members of the leadership team together to talk through how to help Tory. One of the managers, Jen, who reports directly to Mama Bear and had been incredibly supportive during Tory’s earlier struggles, was adamant.
No more chances. We’re done here.”
The room went silent. What had just happened? What was going to happen next? Nobody ever told Mama “No.”
But Jen just had. Everyone held their breath to see how Mama Bear would react. Will Mama lash out in an already emotional situation? Her direct report was arguing against her and being insubordinate.
Mama snapped back – to reality. Jen said what Mama needed to hear. Mama realized “Wait. What am I thinking!?”
Every parent knows how hard it is to step back and be objective when a family member is struggling and hurting. Addiction is a painful illness. It requires a fine line between compassion and tough love. Jen delivered the tough love wake-up call Mama needed. In her words, it “snapped her out of it” so she could refocus and make the decision that was best for all involved. Tory’s behavior wasn’t just a crisis for Tory. Tory’s substance abuse placed the company at serious risk as she operated equipment and assembled customer systems.
Tory would be terminated immediately.
This sheds light on the importance of building trust in an organization. Jen and Mama Bear had developed a strong enough working relationship that Jen felt safe drawing the line in the sand, even though Jen herself had no reporting authority over Tory. She had the courage to say what needed to be said, for the good of the company, and trusted that Mama wouldn’t blow a gasket over it.
One of the best authorities on trust is Brene Brown. She is a researcher, lecturer, and prolific author on the subjects of trust, shame, vulnerability, and leadership. According to Brown, when we trust, we are making something that is important to us vulnerable to the actions of another.
In her book Braving the Wilderness, she outlines the basis for trust through the acronym BRAVING.
BRAVING is made up of:
Boundaries: Awareness of boundaries – ours and others’ – is fundamental in building trust. We can only respect boundaries if we know what they are. In Jen’s case, she was making her boundaries know. They were the right ones for the company as well.
Reliability: When a person follows through with the commitments they make, they demonstrate reliability. Every commitment we make, even the most casual ones in passing like “I’ll call you and we’ll get coffee” impacts the perception of how reliable we are. (The lesson here is don’t say it if you don’t mean to follow-through on it.) Tory had squandered whatever reliability people had entrusted to her by disappearing and using on the job.
Accountability: If there was ever a powder-keg word, it’s “accountability.” Every human and every company wrestles with it. According to Brown, how we react to the breakdowns in accountability is where trust is either built or destroyed. If we dropped a ball, the accountable person admits their bobble and strives to make it right. How the other person reacts to the dropped ball is just as important. If we don’t pause and give the person the chance to step up to the situation, and instead write them off, we’ve cut off the chance for the person to be accountable and make it right.
Tory’s situation is a prime example. This wasn’t the first time the company had run into issues. Tory had been given a chance… and failed.
Vault: Can you keep a secret? If I tell you something in confidence, will you 100% absolutely keep it in confidence? If you share something with me, will I keep your confidence, as if I’ve locked it away in a vault?
Nothing blows trust faster than witnessing or sharing gossip, sniping, letting out secrets, or talking behind someone’s back. If you share my sacred information, I will never share with you again. If you tell me about someone else’s information or snipe behind their back, I won’t trust you either. Why should I?
In the instance of drug abuse, this raises the question of where someone’s allegiance lies. If someone was aware of Tory’s challenge with use at work, do they have a responsibility to keep Tory’s secret tight in the vault or does their responsibility rest with the company? It’s complex and the right direction is situational, yet ultimately allegiance to the company, at least in this circumstance, should prevail.
Integrity: Integrity means doing the right thing. Choosing the right thing over fun or personal preference demonstrates integrity. Fundamentally, integrity is living true to one’s values. Jen demonstrated tremendous courage and integrity by standing up and stating her point of view. It certainly wasn’t fun or without risk, but it was the right thing to do.
Non-Judgement: This is all about vulnerability. We all need help from time to time. The question is whether we are willing to be vulnerable and ask for it, confident that the person we’re asking won’t judge us for needing help.
The truth is we all like to help someone. It makes us feel valuable and impactful. Yet it is scary to ask for it. Dear friends, Jen Gottlieb and Chris Winfield of Super Connector Media taught me this. By not asking for help, I am depriving someone from experiencing that good feeling we get when we are of service.
Tory could have asked for help, but she didn’t. She felt she would be judged. Knowing the people involved, however, had she been vulnerable and asked for help, she would have gotten another opportunity to be accountable, get help, and keep her job.
Generosity: When people let us down, we have a choice – we can be generous and assume that the other person had the best intention but bobbled the ball for some reason, or we can go into scarcity mode and run down the alley of nasty assumptions. Trusting relationships are generous and presume good intentions while giving the other person the opportunity to be accountable to the bobble.
Mama Bear knew that Jen had the best intentions, even if her delivery may have been a bit gruff. She granted Jen grace and recognized that Jen’s recommendation was the right one.
The bottom line was Mama and Jen have developed a relationship steeped in trust. Mama and Tory actually had, prior to the discovery, trust as well. That trust almost blinded Mama from making a good decision to hold Tory accountable because she felt “like family.”
Whether family or family business, we have to build and honor trusting relationships, BRAVING it through tough decisions. It’s the best way to uncover those invisible lines so we don’t trip over them, or ourselves, in the process. How are you BRAVING? Let me know in the comments.