What our families teach us about organizational life

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Jim Whitehurst with galaxy backdrop


In October I appeared on the 100th episode of The Dave and Gunnar Show, an independent podcast about open source and open government issues hosted by two members of Red Hat's public sector team. We spoke at length about The Open Organization (one of my all-time favorite topics!), and the interview gave me a chance to address an important question.

That question actually came from Paul Smith, Red Hat's VP of Public Sector (you might recognize him as the guy who recently photobombed me at a book signing), who asked:

How can you apply the open organization principles to your family life?

This wasn't the first time someone had posed this question to me. In fact, I'd been mulling it over for quite some time. The truth is, people who succeed in leading open organizations embrace open principles in multiple aspects of their lives—not just in the workplace.

Emotions matter

When we're with our families, we recognize that emotions matter—and we express them. We laugh. We cry. We have impassioned debates. We're frank with one another, because we recognize that our deep relationships will outlast any single interaction (even a turbulent one). And we recognize that the people in our lives aren't entirely rational; they're motivated by more than their left-brain impulses. But we tend to check our emotional selves at the door when we enter the workplace.


Emotions are a sign that we're deeply invested in what we're doing. Good leaders know how to read and gauge them (as I say in The Open Organization, outstanding emotional intelligence is pivotal today). Emotions are indicators of employee passion, something open organizations must harness if they're going to be successful today. Family life forces us to confront, embrace, and channel emotions. Life in an organization should do the same.

Engagement in the home

Trust me: I'm speaking from experience when I say that participating in a family requires cultivating engagement. Families tend to work best when everyone has sufficient context for understanding the group's goals (not to mention the resources the group has for achieving those goals).

In fact, family goal setting should be a collaborative effort. I'm not sure too many families sit down at the beginning of a new year and have frank discussions about their goals for the coming months. But more should. After all, families tend to recognize the importance of having everyone on the same page, working in the same direction. Questions like "What charities will we support this year?" or "Where will we vacation this summer?" are too often questions that individuals try to answer themselves when they should be bringing these to the group for a more robust discussion.

Inclusive family decisions

When goal setting becomes collaborative, it immediately becomes inclusive: Family members suddenly have a stake in family decisions, and they feel tied to the outcomes of those decisions. They embrace the group's objectives, and they work to help achieve them.

Imagine the difference. You might come to a decision privately, then communicate that finalized decision to your family in the hope that they'll accept it, understand it, and help enact it. But have you ever taken this approach with your kids? It doesn't end well (actually, it typically ends with confusion and hurt feelings). But you might also consider involving family members in decisions from the start, gathering feedback and adjusting your expectations accordingly. In the end, family members will not only better understand the implications of big decisions, they'll also feel more invested in the process of carrying them out. My experience at Red Hat has taught me this, because the company works with so many passionate open source communities, and issuing orders to a group is simply not as effective as drawing that group into a dialogue.

So in response to Paul, I'd say: You might be asking the wrong question.

The real question is not about how principles of open organizations can apply to life with a family. It's about what our family relationships can teach us about creating more open, inclusive, participatory, and humane workplaces.

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Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments.

1 Comment

You bring up a great point that family drives understanding of the open organization and not the other way around. I wonder how many companies that claim to think of employees as family actually treat them like family in this regard. I suspect it's very few.

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