new rules for reckoning with sexual attraction in the workplace.
men and women are thrust together on the job, sharing the workplace in equal numbers
and, increasingly often, as professional peers. Work is becoming a major source
of intimate interaction between them as they daily share the physical proximity
of working side by side, the stimulation of professional challenge, and the powerful
passions of accomplishment and failure.
every other kind of intimacy, the workplace variety brings with it the likelihood
of sexual attraction. It is natural. It is inevitable, hard-wired as we are to
respond to certain kinds of stimuli, although it sometimes comes as a surprise
to those it strikes. But sexual attraction in the office is virtually inevitable
for other reasons as well: The workplace is an ideal pre-screener, likely to throw
us together with others our own age having similar socioeconomic and educational
backgrounds, similar sets of values, and similar aspirations.
also offers countless opportunities for working friendships to develop. As teams
come to dominate the structure of the business world, the other half of a business
team is increasingly likely to be not only a colleague with complementary skills
and interests, but an attractive member of the opposite sex. As close as the collaboration
between men and women workers can get at the office, it may be even more so outside
it, as workers today function in an extended workplace of irregular hours and
non-office settings. We are now more likely than ever, for example, to share the
intimate isolation of business travel.
opportunity for interaction between the sexes is, in the grand scheme of things,
really rather new. Traditionally, society limits the opportunities for relationships
between the sexes--how it does so is typically one of the distinguishing features
of a culture. Until recently, unmarried men and women who were attracted to each
other could date, court, or marry without raising eyebrows. For attracted couples
who were already committed to others, the only option was to avoid each other
or give in to an affair that consumed great energy just to be kept secret. So
new is our sharing of the workplace that we have not yet created rules or social
structures for dealing with today's unfamiliar intermixture of men and women working
problem is not that sexual attraction inhabits the workplace, but that the options
we traditionally give ourselves for recognizing that passion are far too limited.
Conventional thinking tells us there is only one place to take our sexual feelings--to
bed together. The modern American mind equates sexual attraction with sexual intercourse--the
word "sex" serves as a synonym for physical contact. But intercourse
is only one possible outcome among many.
attraction can be managed. It is not only possible to acknowledge sexual attraction,
but also to enjoy the energy generated by it--and without acting on it sexually.
The positive energy of sexual attraction is instead focused on work as it pulls
men and women into a process of discovery, creativity and productivity. This thinking
is part of a broader ethic emerging in this country: It's possible to have a lot
without having it all.
propose a new, psychologically unique relationship for which no models currently
exist in American culture. It is a positive way for men and women to share intimate
feelings outside of marriage or an illicit affair. It rejects altogether the saint-or-sinner
model of colleague relations as too simplistic for modern life. In our own work
as management consultants, we see the new relationship slowly unfolding in the
American workplace. Confused coworkers, lacking guidance of any kind but responding
to today's workplace realities, are stumbling toward new ways of relating to each
other as they find the old alternatives too confining or otherwise unacceptable.
The relationship they are inventing is not quite romantic--but it's not Platonic,
either. It adds a dimension of increased intimacy to friendship and removes the
sexual aspect from love. We call this relationship More than Friends, Less than
new sexually energized but strictly working relationship has already been officially
documented. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan,
22 percent of managers reported involvement in such a relationship. Moreover,
the relationship, unleashing as it does a great deal of creative energy, was shown
to benefit both "couple" and company. And a study at the University
of North Dakota found that work teams composed of men and women were more productive
than those of same-sex colleagues.
else, of this we are sure: The new nonsexual love lacks a place among people's
traditional expectations. We find that women seem to intuitively understand this
new relationship when they learn of it. They are often the ones who move to forge
it, often out of the wreckage of a colleague's awkward attempts at something sexual.
But men often have a hard time with the idea...at first. The conventional models
for sexual behavior prescribe a course of sexual conquest for men (seduction for
women) and, moreover, they have a large ego-investment in it. Men find it harder
to give up the deeply ingrained macho model. They deny that they can be anything
other than a successful lover. Nevertheless, we have often observed two people
approach this new relationship with unmatched expectations and move to mutually
acceptable middle ground--and both benefit. To men we say: Count to 10 and hear
believe that sexual attraction among certain coworkers is inevitable. The laws
of probability alone guarantee that the new gender parity will create a lot of
sexual attraction at work that will need an outlet. The new commonplace of shared
assignments provides natural opportunities for intimate communication between
men and women and nurtures attractions that might have languished for lack of
proximity or initiative. As always, some people will pursue sexual attraction
to love and/or marriage. Others will become involved in affairs that have potential
costs to careers and to other, established relationships outside. But the vast
majority wild not want or need a romantic relationship at work. We think it is
time to bring sexual attraction out of the office closet and let it find its motivational
and creative application in people's professional lives.
with the old thinking alone. however, in which the only outlet for sexual attraction
is physical sex. frustrated attraction has an unwelcome way of turning up as sexual
harassment. We all need a way of thinking about sexual attraction that offers
us more of a choice than consummation or harassment.
is another incentive for welcoming this new, intimate relationship. Traditional
thinking assumes there is only one appropriate place for sexual attraction--between
lovers or spouses. But that leads to an untenable burden on our primary relationships--the
spouses or lovers with whom we share it all romantically and sexually. As seasoned
observers, we believe that it is naive to assume that a single intimate relationship
will fulfill us in every way. As busy people leading complex lives outside the
home, we cannot expect our primary relationships to also bear the burden of providing
total personal and professional satisfaction. We need to grow comfortable loving
one person romantically and deeply valuing another intellectually, artistically.
or in any of a variety of ways that do not diminish our commitment to a primary
term "consenting adults" needs broadening to include not just those
who willingly share physical sex, but those who are open to the possibility of
acknowledging their sexual attraction, communicating openly about their feelings,
and enjoying their sexuality within mutually agreed-upon boundaries. Above all,
the new relationship is a limited relationship. You may share moments of great
personal revelation and intimacy, but you do not expect to share your bodies and
souls. That leaves only one question: How do you get there?
and Alicia are attorneys with complementary specialties who work for the same
firm and have for years criss-crossed the country taking depositions and building
cases together. They share grueling work schedules, meals, hours of strapped-in
airliner conversation, and even exercise regimens that overlap away from home.
When they put away the briefcases, they look like a couple, and at times they
act like one.
is commonly the case, neither can cite any lightning bolts that signalled the
beginning of an irresistible attraction between them. Because events dictated
their time together, the attraction developed slowly and naturally: they didn't
deliberately cultivate it. The fact that they found each other interesting was
almost incidental--at the beginning. Now, either will admit the other is good
company, attractive, and worthy of a fantasy from time to time. An affair is the
last thing they need as partnership looms for each, Don awaits the birth of a
child in a happy marriage, and Alicia knows in her heart that he isn't the right
guy for her.
the course of their relationship they talked about affairs, but consciously decided
not to have one. At the same time, neither of them wanted a relationship that
had been neutered, and both acknowledged a desire to enjoy the sexual spark between
them, keep it within their chosen boundaries, and continue working together without
falling in love or having sex. Instead, they deliberately cultivated an intimacy
that everyone came to recognize as special but not romantic.
partner had to overcome the clumsy advances of the other, yet this successful
resolution of a modern-workplace attraction came about as the result of an emerging
sexual etiquette. It says we can talk about sex without inviting advances or harassing
one another. It offers mutual respect and open communication as alternatives to
playing out the old stereotypes of seduction and conquest. It offers the interpersonal
sophistication to deal with sexual feelings in other than a romance-novel mode.
1983, we have been working together as management trainers. As we traveled around
the country, gathering experience with the problems people were having, meeting
workers of all kinds, we learned some things about the new gender-mixed work force.
Alicia and Don's experience is becoming increasingly common. Women like Alicia
tell us, "With Don, it didn't happen overnight. We've spent enough time together
to develop the kind of trust and mutual respect that will let us talk about it.
I know how to say no, and he would never force himself on me. I trust him completely,
and there's no reason we can't enjoy an attraction that's fun and energizing without
ending up in bed."
men like Don acknowledge that "part of me says it's all or nothing when I
have sexual feelings about a woman. But another part of me says it's more complicated
that that with someone like Alicia. Somehow it has to be possible to play safely
with sexy feelings, enjoy them, and still not have to sleep together.
New Sexual Etiquette
the basis of our experience, we have developed a practical, two-person model of
sexual etiquette for those who wish to exploit the energy of workplace attraction
without physical sex or falling in love, or avoiding each other altogether and
pretending that the workplace is genderless. At its heart is a consciously managed
relationship founded on mutual trust, respect, and acceptable boundaries that
are openly agreed on, communicated, and monitored by both parties. Unlike friends,
these partners share moments of great personal revelation. But unlike lovers,
they do not expect to share bodies and souls. They divulge only what they choose
human desire is something any two people should be able to feel without guilt
or awkwardness. Where we set our boundaries is what distinguishes committed, romantic
relationships from the near loving feeling of those who come to know each other
intimately through work. These are the five keys to pulling off the new relationship:
Setting boundaries. Our personal boundaries are the psychological barriers that
define us as individuals. You need a strong sense of your own values and purpose
to risk sharing them intimately with someone else even more so when you rely on
your boundaries to permit tremendous personal intimacy yet prevent its becoming
physical. You and your partner openly discuss and decide what is and is not off-limits.
establish boundaries and expectations for the relationship right at the outset,
as a means for defining and consciously managing it. You agree that you will not
develop a personal life together and that your relationship will not be allowed
to become a love affair. Some boundaries, notably the sexual one, are lines you
agree never to cross; they remain forever out of bounds. Similarly, neither physical
contact nor the language of lovers has a place in the relationship--they will
only send misunderstood signals.
boundaries may be set and changed as you grow safe and comfortable in this new,
unfamiliar relationship: defining the kinds of situations in which you allow yourselves
to be alone, discussing certain facets of your personal lives, the giving and
accepting of compliments, allowing your partner to see you when you are not at
your best, and admitting the high value you place on the relationship without
fear of being misunderstood.
will also have internal boundaries to contend with--very personal ones you set
and maintain without the knowledge of your partner. These are the lines you draw
for monitoring your own thoughts and behavior; coping with near-love feelings
is a personal matter each partner handles in his/her own way.
of the contract between you is an agreement to respect each other's privacy and
individual identities. Situations may arise when you feel you must reinforce a
boundary; you can do it indirectly, by altering the direction of a conversation,
or directly, by discussing the unwelcome inquiry openly, as part of the process
of consciously managing your relationship.
Conscious management. There are no sure paths to ideal relationships between mutually
attracted men and women under any circumstances. But without conscious management
of this relationship, personal attraction can lead to destructive consequences--from
ruined marriages to tainted professional reputations. Consciously managed, the
relationship becomes a series of purposeful, directed events, rather than random
ones that could drift into unplanned physical intimacy. You expect to have differences
that you will resolve openly, instead of dancing around issues and leaving them
open to ambiguity.
discussion, you create a voluntary contract in which you both agree that you will
divert your sexual energy from personal attraction between you to the working
relationship supporting it. You agree that your attraction is a positive thing
that makes your working relationship exciting. You define ways to behave that
will help you maintain your mutual boundaries. You communicate honestly with each
other about your feelings and expectation. You make no attempt to hide the relationship
from your spouse or lover on the one hand, or your company managers on the other,
although you maintain discretion.
first, you will probably find it difficult and awkward to discuss the emotional
issues involved in creating and managing this relationship. It's new and unfamiliar
turf and you're not sure what constitutes the right measure of trust. Your best
guide is to sense when tension ballads--that's when something needs to be brought
into the open for honest discussion.
Monitoring each other. Two people seldom approach a relationship--any relationship--with
perfectly matched expectations. You and your partner both know that adjustments
in your behavior will sometimes be necessary to keep things on an even keel. You
share the responsibility for keeping your own behavior, feelings and expectations
in line with the boundaries you establish. Monitoring each other ensures that
open communication takes place when you sense your partner mayinfringe on a boundary
or yield to temptation.
each other also sets the expectation of open communication. You come to your relationship
with respect for each other's intellect, tastes, and competencies. You look to
each other to supplement what you individually bring to your work--to stimulate
your thinking and enhance your creativity.
Open discussion. You are making deliberate use of sexual chemistry to become both
more personally satisfied and more successful and productive. The overarching
technique you use to keep behavior within the boundaries you set is open discussion.
It short-circuits problems that tend to build with time. Instead of maintaining
the relationship by one-sided internal coping, you raise concerns to the level
of two-person reasoning.
clarify areas of misunderstanding where individual interpretations of events or
intentions may be wrong. In time, you'll probably be laughing at simple misunderstandings.
You vent frustrations to each other as well as understanding and being understood--eliminating
the need to reject and the pain of rejection. The secret is not some perfect progression
through an ideal set of relationship-building steps, but rather in the openness
that says, "Ask me. Let's talk about it. We can work this out."
Cooling-off periods. Unlike husbands and wives, you have the advantage or regular
time-outs from each other, away from a nonphysical but demanding association.
In permanent relationships, a large tolerance quotient is both desirable and required.
In this relationship, by contrast, you are not obligated to keep each other happy
or to take care of each other or to tolerate differences in food or music or television
preferences on a daily and nightly basis. You deny yourselves some of the privileges
of a fully committed couple while you avoid some of their frictions.
the rare occasions when work isn't going well, or your conscious management techniques
are flagging, you can acknowledge this is not going to be the right day to caccomplish
much together and step back to a comfortable distance.
the good days, this relationship fosters inspired work that is intense, demanding
and fulfilling. When it ends, parting involves ambivalence. You enjoy what you
do so you are reluctant to stop, but you feel a sense of relief in getting away
for a time to relax and be nourished in different ways with your family and friends.
Down time spent apart allows you to keep a view of your work partner as someone
promises to replace the committed love of a primary relationship. But the bottom
line is that men and women working closely together find themselves in relationships
that in many ways mimic courtship and marriage. They ride the emotional roller
coaster of success and failure side by side. They become interdependent. They
think alike and share values. Common goals emerge and are met through mutual effort.
They have a de facto marriage minus the morning breath, the kids' problems and
the mortgage payments. Fresh tailored clothes, a perpetually clean-shaven face,
and a crisp clean shirt spare coworkers the gritty reality that personal appearances
take on at home.
pretty as this picture looks, however, a review of life's priorities quickly suggests
to participants what it lacks. Coworkers who are more than friends come to realize
that their work partner is not the one who takes care of them when they are sick,
who shares the joys of the children, who wakes them up on Christmas morning. They
take part in none of the life activities that make their at-home romantic relationships
primary and their work relationships secondary. Above all, the privilege of discarding
boundaries that separate individuals, the free merging of two people, is exclusive
to the primary relationship.
center-of-our-lives arrangements remain the source of our deepest satisfactions
sexually and otherwise, but secondary relationships provide treasured qualities
of narrow depth and exclusive experience not found elsewhere, especially since
professional interests are dominant factors in our identities. They allow discovery
and elaboration of parts of ourselves that remain unexplored in other relationships--passions
for art or music of sports, say. One very sober "business couple" we
know discovered to their vast amusement that they are both avid Elvis fans. On
a business trip to Memphis they decided to use their free time to visit Graceland,
simply because it's there--something their mates wouldn't do for money.
Work Is Sexy
couples" breathe life into their projects together. They find themselves
struggling to make them survive. They grieve when they fail. And they revel in
the joy of what they've created in their intense interaction. They may travel
together closing deals, winning accolades, recounting victorious days together.
Good work is sexy!
and Kevin are intimates but not lovers. They are experimental chemists in the
new-products division of a pharmaceutical company. They think and plan and dispute
ideas together, then defend their ideas in the corporate world with an intensity
known only to people who have shared insight. There is a magic between them that
transcends chemical formulas and careers, and each of them knows it.
they look at each other after completing an important thought in unison and, without
words, communicate an appreciation for one another that unknowing observers might
misconstrue as love. Their lab technique is a symphony of moves developed through
countless hours of teamwork--they know each other's professional souls, anticipate
their every move, and sometimes it looks and feels very personal. But it isn't,
and they know it. When work ends, Michelle is totally absorbed in a life all her
own with seldom a thought of her lab partner. In it she shares loving intimacy
with another partner who doesn't know a beaker from a Petri dish, but knows her
like no one else does, not even Kevin, who has a fulfilling personal life of his
recently talked with Judy and Mark, two industrial trainers who were among the
earliest subjects in our investigation of non-loving intimates. We asked them
how their arrangement could be so special and sustained and still not have eclipsed
their romantic relationships--as many who react to our model suggest it must.
terribly unscientific," Mark began, "but anyone who has ever been in
love knows what it feels like--and the two of us have just never felt that way
about each other. Fascination, respect, some lust from time to time, but never
care a lot for each other, and we appreciate each other as colleagues, even find
each other sexy," Judy added.
chemistry was there at the beginning and still is, after a fashion," explains
Mark. "It made us special, and it still does. Things can get complicated
when animal attraction occasionally gets mixed in with real caring, but it all
amounts to something less than an irresistible force for us.
thoughts of fulfilling an already satisfying relationship come and go, but there's
been no real pain in not acting on them. There has been honest frustration sometimes,
but when work ends and we part company, neither longs for the other or gets jealous
of the people we each go home to."
special times have always come when we're putting everything we've got into a
project," notes Judy. Over time, the power of sexual attraction is not diminished,
but they gain more experience and skill in handling it.
partners get out of non-loving intimacy is clear. Their relationship is amazingly
satisfying psychologically, and very workable. They pursue their work with an
abandon they never could afford if they were lovers who had to get along both
at work and at home. They do genuinely inspired work together and honestly love
it, their creative energy flowing from a sexual attraction they've chosen not
to indulge physically or force into love. They have friends and family at home,
where they recharge themselves.
also benefit. They get highly motivated workers who are enthusiastic and happy.
The relationship enhances creativity. And partners are not deceiving anyone or
stealing work time. They waste no energy on feeling guilty.
and women bring differing and complementary orientations to shared work. A tremendous
amount of energy can flow from their sex-based differences when they are allowed
to keep their sexual identities, rather than suppress them in conformance with
the corporate ideal of a safe, genderless workplace. Non-sexual intimates willingly
spend time together to achieve great results--and avoid behavior that would threaten
so love is much as it's always been. Sexual, romantic love has been and will be
the many splendored thing, driven by a desire for fusion and physical intimacy
and achieving that blurring of boundaries that takes place only in sex. But our
model promises legitimacy for what many men and women have felt but dared not
admit or act on--the reality that sexual chemistry can be safely shared with an
associate and play a constructive role in their lives.
works because what has changed the workplace has crept onto the domestic scene
as well. The days of insecure spouses who waited at home has passed, part of the
revolution that has swept women into jobs in large numbers. Simply put, peers
understand peers. Newly equal husbands, wives and lovers accept what they know
from common experience--colleagues may be sorely tempted to become lovers, but
they will settle for being more than friends. The trust that makes it all possible
is, after all, the only valid measure of romantic fidelity.
It is dangerous for men and women to work alone together after hours; they tempt
fate, and ask for an affair. But the modem workplace so often dictates that very
situation. We frequently have no choice but to work together. Besides, the man/woman
chemistry can stimulate a great team effort if it stays within acceptable bounds.
A man isn't capable of spending long periods of time with an attractive colleague
without making sexual advances to her. Men admit that they can't control the feeling,
but deny that it leads them to hit on every attractive female within their orbit.
Besides, modern women sometimes make the first move. For both sexes, there is
something to be said for delayed gratification--saved for their at home lovers;
or sublimation of sexual energy into something else--like work. Acknowledging
attraction is harmless--it's what we do with it that counts.
If work partners are sexually attracted, they can't possible do the job effectively--their
minds will be on sex rasher than work. Sexual energy can stimulate creativity
and actually drive them into a better working relationship instead of into bed
or a sexual harassment confrontation.
Managers have an obligation to break up a work team they suspect of being sexually
attracted because embarrassing and disruptive consequences are inevitable. Managers
should deal with actual outcomes, not fears of what might happen. If productivity
suffers, someone complains or the company is embarrassed managers should intervene.
Otherwise, they should leave workers alone to be productive and enjoy their work
Eyler, D.R.; Baridon, A.P.
Originally published by Psychology Today:May 92