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Blended Families & Team Dynamics

What can we learn from blended families on how to run large teams successfully?

I met, my now husband, in 2010 via online dating, 4 years post divorce. I had two young children and he had 3 young children at the time. It was never my plan to partner with a man with so many children, but i liked him and life never works out as you think it will. We eventually moved in together, the 7 of us and immediately we both became step parents as well as parents and today, we are super proud to have a successful blended family with kiddies from 13yrs to 19yrs.

There are so many mis-conceptions on what a blended family is and how it should work, and like all things in life, everyone has so many opinions and judgement on the right way and the wrong way to do it. My reflection is that running a blended family is very similar in how you need to run a successful team, basically, it is all about family/team dynamics. So how does our blended family work?

Good Intentions - Upfront, my husband and I were naive, obviously we had no idea what we were getting into and the complexity of relationships we would have to navigate. Not only did we need to navigate our own relationship and our newly created family, but also those of two ex-partners, their home and their families.

Positive, Inclusive Environment - To make it work, we needed to agree what 'good' looked like, i.e. an easy-going, positive, FUN, family home where everyone was kind and supportive to each other and respectful of each others needs, even if you did not understand that need or agreed with it.

Unity over Division - My husband and I came to realize, the hard way, unfortunately that having a positive, united front in front of the kids was essential and that we needed to actively support each other and have each other's back. This sounds easy but a child frequently will wish to test your loyalty and they will have conflicting needs that can quickly create resentment and division if you allow it to fester. Children want you to stand up for them and to know that you love them, the challenge is doing so by soothing them, listening to them, empathizing whilst standing your ground that family harmony is non-negotiable.

Tabling conflict respectfully - Conflict is normal and arguments should not be avoided, it just needs to be handled openly and respectfully rather than allowing situations to be manipulated to allow one child to have a win at the expense of others in the family.

Acknowledging our differences and embracing them - We eventually learnt that a blended family is not one family, but actually two families that live together, so needs a different approach. I think this acknowledgement was one of our keys to success, as children can get resentful being made fit into a situation which is not a natural fit and having empathy that belonging to multiple households is complex for a young brain to cope with, so don't force square pegs into a round hole.

Repeatable Rituals - We fostered family rituals that belonged to the 7 of us alone, these formed a part of our identity and encouraged us to look out for each other. They were simple things like Sunday night family dinners on the deck, movie nights, big birthday celebrations and overseas family roadmaps where we made memories and kept family photo albums and made movies as a group. Many years in, this consistent rhythm is now expected and disappointment ensues when it doesn't happen, it provides a positive, soothing environment for all of us.

Respecting each others needs - Weekly date nights for the two of us as a couple, which the kids soon learnt was another non-negotiable for both of us to keep our relationship alive and fun and for the children to acknowledge that needed alone time and it was good for everyone if we were happy and that our happiness also mattered.

Roles and division of labour - Not only did we have a new family to navigate, we also had a new relationship to navigate, where we both brought in our own pre-conceptions of how it should work. We both worked full time and whilst we adored each others kids, neither of us was interested in being at the beck and call of each other's kids, or being the family martyr when it came to chores. I do not enjoy cooking, but i am happy to clean, my husband on the other hand is happy to cook, so we flexibly applied division of labour, but not always equally, but based on our interests and strengths.

A lot of these lessons that I learnt at home, also apply to the workplace and the culture you create. It is a choice how you play your cards. so what kind of culture do you subscribe to? Inclusive? Open, Kind, Respectful of others? Or favoritism, silence, and division? Do you let one person divide your team/family? Do you listen for people manipulating you to win or do you table for all fairly? As a leader, you create the environment for success and a good culture starts at the top?

Lots has being written on positive and negative cultures

The 5 dysfunctions of team by Patrick Lencient is a great book on what not to do

  1. Absence of Trust - Not validating what you hear, lack of empathy, thinking you know better

  2. Fear of Conflict - Seeking artificial harmony, encouraging silence over constructive dialogue

  3. Lack of commitment - Pretending there is buy on for certain group decisions

  4. Avoidance of accountability - Allowing counterproductive negative behavior which encourages division over unity

  5. Inattention to results - allowing people to focus on personal status and ego over others

What Does a good culture look like?

This topic has being explored in great depth and the themes are consistent. Basically, who is on the team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work and view their contributions. In order words, it all comes down to team dynamics. Google researched this in Project Oxygen which showed the benefits of an inclusive culture that cares for success and well-being. Atlassian has recently introduced a zero tolerance culture for what they call 'Brilliant Jerks', i.e. people who could get results, but who were not concerned about how they impacted others with their behavour and attitude. I strongly recommend that you watch Margaret Heffernan's superchicken Ted Talk which describes all of this succinctly with a chicken experment.

I am here to help you realize that life goes on after divorce and that a strong positive culture is possible, you just need to choose it and open your eyes to your current environment and what behaviors it truly embodies and then make an active choice, complicit ignorance and avoidance or mutual accountability to all.

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