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Monday, September 2, 2013

Managers & Employees Should Not Be "Friends"

Photo by Dominic Campbell via Flickr

Work situations are often stressful. According to a study mentioned in the Huffington Post, the genders tend to handle stress differently:

  • Men - "fight or flight": It's a physical thing, according to research by Australian scientists Dr Joohyung Lee and Professor Vincent Harley. Only men have the SRY gene, which they link to various biological processes associated with aggression.
  • Women - "tend and befriend": The scientists argue that two factors "prevent aggressive responses" in women - the presence of estrogen and "the (stress-triggered) activation of internal opiates, which the body uses to control pain."

In other words, according to this theory, biology drives behavior. Stress is painful and depending on your body chemicals, you will respond differently in order to seek relief:

"While men favor punching or running away, women are more likely to try to diffuse a situation and seek out social support."

If we apply the theory to actual people, e.g. managers, and divide them by gender the following hypothesis results. Confronted with staff who continually cause them stress, men and women will tend to respond differently:

  • Men will view the situation as a form of war, will admit the conflict, and, if they think they can win, will compete openly with the individual toward an end where only one is left standing. If they think they can't win, they will withdraw.
  • Women will also view the situation as a form of war, but will try to win by competing covertly and denying the conflict. This means they may not allow themselves to recognize or admit the competition that exists. They also will likely try to reduce the stress of the interaction by winning the stress-inducing person over by trying to understand what drives them.

If this theory holds merit, it bears thinking about in today's workplace, where the paradigm of "friending as management" is becoming more commonplace and the traditional "chain of command" approach to management is going out of fashion. This is particularly true as more and more women join the leadership ranks.

Even as we try to encourage a more cooperative and engaging style of work -- simply because it works better -- we should be careful to avoid those "blurred lines" and observe the boundaries between people at different levels of power and responsibility in the organization.

While the working relationship should be collegial, when one person has more power than the other, the concept of "friendship" is inappropriate and unfair, and should not be imported into the work environment. 

* All opinions are my own.