“We’re Family”: Mark Lipton on Workplace Inadequacies

Written by Mark Lipton, Emeritus Professor of Management, Parsons School of Design and The New School, published on Medium
Yes, even your organization shows signs of Arrested Development.
Having blown through the entirety of Succession during a late summer lull, I needed something new, something less dark and reminiscent of the characters that were featured in my last book, Mean Men. Thank you, Netflix, for the timely fix: a “binge-able” all-seasons return of the brilliantly written, directed, and acted series, Arrested Development. My memory of watching it was from pre-COVID and therefore clouded–and I was ready to rediscover it again.
In Arrested Development, Justin Bateman plays Michael Bluth, CEO of the shambolic remains of his family’s business, and the only family member showing his age. Thus, when his siblings grovel for money or favors, he bristles and turns them down. And, each time he denies a request, they respond, “But we’re family, Michael.”
To which Michael always counters, “No. We are not.”
The word “family” in the context of this nutty bunch of characters is accurate only in the titular, biological sense. But Michael understood his immediate relatives were anything but a typical functional family. By the end of season one, I realized this series—and the Bluth family as a whole—evoked memories of my past professional experiences. And one considerable insight.
First, whenever “We’re family” was uttered, I felt a certain deja vu.
Eighteen months earlier, I was coaching the CEO and owner of an expanding West Coast healthcare organization. Our primary goals were to articulate and operationalize his strategy for growth, while aligning the firm’s culture in order to support innovation and rapid scaling. From all-hands Zoom meetings, to one-on-one conversations with me, the CEO repeatedly referred to employees as “family.”
“Stop saying that,” I finally said, surprising even myself with the directness and frustration of my voice.
“You’re not a family. You’ve gone through restructuring, layoffs, and reorganizations. You’ve outright fired people. When you say, ‘We’re a family,’ imagine the emotional dissonance that creates for employees. They’d be legitimate in feeling betrayed after hearing you always refer to them as a ‘family’ and then watching their colleague disappear due to one of your decisions.”
The second insight was the accuracy with which the “arrested development” concept could identify seemingly unrelated, yet dysfunctional, organizational behaviors.
The number of people with arrested development in organizations may be more pervasive than we had imagined
While not an official clinical diagnosis, “arrested development” is used to understand and discuss specific behaviors and characteristics in some individuals. It describes a situation in which emotional or psychological growth and development appear to have stopped (or have become stunted) at a particular stage of life. It shows up in the emotional responses or coping mechanisms that are more typical of a younger age even though the individual is chronologically older.
Though arrested development may not present itself as a full-blown mental health issue, recall your experiences with others at work (or clients that you work for) who may have at least moderate versions of the more acute variation:
  • Peter Pan Syndrome: When adults avoid the responsibilities and challenges of adulthood and cling to a more childlike or adolescent lifestyle and mindset.
  • Regression: In response to stress, trauma, or other triggers, some revert to childlike or adolescent behaviors, reactions, or thought patterns. What may be seen are temper tantrums, dependency, or emotional withdrawal.
  • Emotional Stunting: Too often, we take those experiencing difficulty in forming mature and healthy emotional relationships for granted. When they struggle with emotional intimacy, communication, or conflict resolution, their reactions may be more typical of someone significantly younger. This, too, may result from arrested development.
Though my client complained about managers who exhibited some of these traits, he was not able to see how calling them “family” had the potential to impact some more than others. I then became curious whether this habit was a clue to his subtle arrested development.
I wondered: Could a leader reinforce arrested development in organizations?
How Arrested Development shows up in organizations
  1. Resistance to Change: When an organization avoids implementing new technologies, strategies, or processes and is stuck in its ways, one helpful way of understanding it is through arrested development. This hinders the organization’s ability to adapt to a changing business environment, and leaves it wide open to disruption. We see this when organizations are far less competitive in their industry. Subsequently, failing to keep up with market trends and customer demands often leads to a decline in the organization’s relevance.
  2. Bureaucracy and Inefficiency: Far too often, organizations transition from healthy adaptability in their early stages of growth to control systems capable of creating sclerosis whenever innovation and timely decisions are required. Innovation becomes smothered, bureaucratic structures expand, and leaders over-index on optimization at the expense of risk-taking exploration. It’s often a sign that leadership has regressed in dangerous ways.
  3. Cultural Inertia: It’s a truism that organizational cultures resist change. But when an organization’s culture becomes rigid and unwelcoming to new ideas, is not open to risk, severely punishes level-headed mistakes, or avoids diverse perspectives, it is on the road to stagnation.
  4. Lack of Strategic Planning: Organizations need a forward-looking and robust vision story that can serve as an aspirational North Star to the future. But, with arrested development, strategy becomes short-sighted and only focused on short-term opportunities. True vision is nonexistent.
  5. Inadequate Learning and Development: An organization that does not invest in and hold people accountable for their personal and professional growth is unknowingly following the playbook for arrested development.
  6. Stagnation: Employees or teams may stick to their comfort zone rather than taking on new challenges or responsibilities. They perform the same tasks–or use the same processes–year after year without adapting to new challenges.
  7. Ineffective Leadership: When leaders or managers exhibit signs of arrested development, they may struggle—and fail—to adopt new leadership styles, management techniques, or approaches to the changing business environment. Lousy decision-making and a failure to effectively guide and motivate their teams predictably follow.
Have you been in the midst of at least three of these?
Calling people “family” may be symptomatic of an organization in arrested development.
Think about it.
When leaders default to addressing their employees as “family,” might that one word provide some insight into the wider-reaching dimensions of arrested development?
The “family” label assumes unrealistic loyalty and expectations of personal sacrifice. Employees may feel pressured to prioritize work over personal lives, and expect to be treated as healthy and functional family members. If they do consider themselves “family,” does this create reasonable expectations that the leader will stand by them–during good times and bad–through all of their successes and failures?
I stopped working with this West Coast CEO about a year ago. He could not stop using the “f” word in employee gatherings. As the firm grew, he became scared to move decision-making authority further down to his talented middle managers. While he prided himself on creating a continually innovative company, those in “the family” knew that, since there was little tolerance for measured risk-taking (and failing), any idea to succeed ultimately wouldn’t. Employees did not feel trusted, and the CEO’s insights about why the parade of competent staff and clinicians were exiting the organization on their own was limited. He interpreted it on a deeply personal level, as though his children were abandoning a beloved parent.
His leadership growth needed to match the firm’s needs at that stage.
When you hear a leader talk about the organizational “family,” look deeper. It may not indicate you’re amid the nuclear Bluth family’s chaos, but it might  just be “the tell” that arrested organization development runs deeply and corrosively in the organization.
Mark leads the Executive Leadership Development Lab at Parsons Exec Ed, a three-and-a-half-day experiential learning program designed to help leaders develop their ability to build and sustain transformative relationships in increasingly diverse, expansive, and interdependent organizations.