Saturday, August 28, 2010

Should a Woman Flirt at Work?

Forbes Woman asks the question: should a woman flirt her way to career success? Link here. Even though everyone knows the answer, it is neither a frivolous nor a trivial question. It is not even easy to frame it correctly.

Most women find it natural to flirt. I believe that it is part of their DNA. You can observe flirtatious behavior in two year old girls. While some of it is learned, the impulse is probably innate.

This means that if you say that women should not flirt their way to the top, you are saying that the workplace requires that they repress a part of themselves that feels normal and natural.

But, then again, the tendency to flirt is not a constant. Young women are more likely to flirt than are older women. Young women who are unmarried and unattached and who work long hours are more likely to flirt on the job.

Women who are married or otherwise attached are less likely to flirt. Since they are not looking for a relationship, they often have no problem separating their public from their private lives. Of course,  women who are not interested in forming relationships with men have no problem not flirting on the job.

It may seem strange, but telling women to postpone marriage and romantic attachment in favor of building their careers might well produce an ironic consequence: such women might be more likely to flirt at work. And women who flirt at work are placing themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Flirting is erotic behavior. Flirting redefines the space that two people are inhabiting. Flirting does not necessarily offer an invitation to an erotic assignation, but it redefines the stakes in an interaction. Thus, flirting is unprofessional.

As such, it produces drama, lust, jealousy, and envy. The woman who gets ahead because she flirts shamelessly with her boss will not be respected in her new position. Others will not see her as having earned her job, so her accomplishments will be tainted and she will have difficulty functioning in any position she gains.

Flirting breaches office decorum. Modesty and propriety are essential to workplace efficiency. When men feel that they are being invited to look down a woman's blouse, they will have that much less focus available for their job.

For men such rules are easier to observe. First, because few men are natural born flirts. Second, because male appearance involves wearing uniforms. And uniforms do not have a specifically erotic implication.

Of course, some women have chosen to avoid flirting by going to the opposite extreme. Wanting to get as far away as possible from the vamp, they start acting like lumberjacks. Not wanting to be perceived as womanly, they begin acting like imitation men. Often enough, as poor imitations.

To their detriment. You cannot be respected on the job, or anywhere else in life for that matter, if you try to present yourself as someone you are not. A woman effecting the behavior of a lumberjack or a drill sergeant or a linebacker will provoke more ridicule than respect. She is not going to fool anyone, and many will be put off by the fact that she thinks that she can.

And yet, many women have been told that to get ahead in a man's world they must act like men. This advice has damaged more than a few careers.

If a woman is faced with two untenable options-- acting like a vamp or acting like a tough guy-- she is going to freeze, to take neither, to feel inhibited, and to have difficulty functioning on the job.

How then does a woman find a happy medium between lumberjack and vamp? Forbes Woman addresses the question and comes up with the concept of Platonic flirting.

I admire the effort, but I'm less than enthusiastic about the formulation. Either you are flirting or you are not flirting. You cannot remove the erotic charge by calling it Platonic.

In fact, if the word Platonic really means something, it still involves seduction. At least not as Socrates practiced it. When Socrates was practicing the Socratic method he was not engaged in seducing bodies-- true enough-- but he was certainly involved in seducing minds.

Even today, most of what are called Platonic relationships involve couples where one wants more intimacy than the other. 

More than a few people have gotten quite far in this world by seducing minds. Think of Barack Obama, for instance. Yet, once a seducer's victims discover that they have been had, their passion will turn negative and they will want to avenge themselves for having been made fools of.

Yet, finding a happy medium is not really that difficult. As I mentioned above, married professional women do it all the time, with little strain.

First, we need to understand what is involved in exercising leadership. A leader is clear and direct, but that does not preclude being charming. A leader defines everyone's job responsibility and directs the implementation of policy. That does not preclude an occasional smile or a softer tone of voice.

What matters is that the job gets done. Leadership is not about adopting this or that persona. It is about creating the conditions where everyone can do their best work and accomplish their tasks.

Sometimes people work better when they do not feel that they are being pressured or forced to do things.

Women have more difficulty leading groups of men because men instinctively do not emulate the example that women set. This should come as no surprise.

And yet, a Margaret Thatcher was certainly an effective leader, through the power of her ideas, the clarity of her vision, her uncompromising and unapologetic nature, and her devotion to her work.

As Thatcher demonstrated, it is possible to be unyielding as a woman, just as it is possible to be a weak-kneed man. Who does not remember Thatcher's admonition to Pres. G. H. W. Bush during the first Gulf War: Don't go wobbly, George....

In most professional and executive positions, the temperament of a lumberjack or drill sergeant would be inappropriate anyway. What matters is strength of character, not manly brawn.

When a woman decides to flirt at the office, she is demonstrating poor character. When she decides, as one man once told me, to go "all girly," she is showing a kind of weakness that will undermine her future career advancement. Conspicuous and indecorous displays are out of place, whether they involve manliness or femininity.

There is no reason why a woman cannot exercise leadership while still being the woman that she is. If she believes that she needs to be gruff and forceful; if she believes that she needs to bark orders and force people to do things; then she is simply a poor executive. She has not understood what leadership entails and involves.

In the end, of course, it is not about making one's behavior correspond to an idea. The best way for a woman, or anyone else, to develop the kinds of character traits that allow her to exercise leadership effectively is quite simply to find a good role model.

The best role models will be women who have not suppressed their womanhood on the way to career success.

Perhaps, Margaret Thatcher; perhaps, Meg Whitman; perhaps, Sarah Palin. None of them got ahead by flirting, even by Platonic flirting.


QUESTION said...

I have a sincere question. Having worked for myself for most of my life I now find myself in a situation where a male co-worker is calling me "sweetie" and now... graduated to calling me "dear".

How should I interpret this as I have no previous experience of such?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the question. I fear that I do not really have enough information to get a very good sense of the nature of the relationship and the interaction. I don't know what kind of business it is, how old the participants are, what is and is not customary in your workplace, and so on. I also don't know how you address him.

Sometimes a man can use terms of endearment without their meaning much of anything. That depends on age and culture and martial status. Sometimes he is trying to establish a relationship on a different footing, but if he is I would assume that there are more signs than these terms.

As for how to respond if it makes you uncomfortable, you might say that you give him permission to call you by your first name.

For all I know he has a problem remembering names and uses fallback terms of endearment to cover his forgetting.

Anyway, if you can provide us with more information, I'd be happy to expand on this advice.

QUESTION said...

He's 10 years older than me. We are both reps in the same city for a company we only deal with via the phone. However he and I see each other every once in a while. I have given him NO indication that I want to be anything but business collegues with him - no friendly vibes from me. I keep it very professional.

I call him by his first name and he calls me by my first name but every once in a while throws in a sweetie or a dear.

It annoys me.

I'd be annoyed even if he were handsome, but he's not, so it of course it annoys me.

I'm contemplating calling him "shorty" or "baldy" the next time he does it to test his reaction and drop a big hint.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I believe it best to avoid confrontation where possible, and to avoid having a conversation about problem.

That leaves us with the question of how you can communicate your displeasure without saying so explicitly.

One approach might be this: whenever he calls you by your name or addresses you respectfully, respond respectfully.

If he calls you by one of the inappropriate terms you can cut off the conversation by excusing yourself or, if you are in his presence, by looking away from him (losing eye contact) or ignoring him

If you do this with some consistency he should get the message after a while.

I hope that that helps.

QUESTION said...

He only calls me that at the end of phone conversations. It sounds how a husband says "bye" to his wife and really annoys me. I just say "bye" and hang up.

women pheromones said...

Well, flirting is a part of the human body language and also affects our relationship issues. and for me there is a right time and right place for flirting.