The Problem With Professional Distance: What do you think?

m_karin hurt

Guest post by Karin Hurt.

Real leadership requires a willingness (and ability) to go deep with other human beings. But when it’s a man and a woman, going deep can get scary fast. Connection can be costly. Being friends can easily cross a line. Professional distance comes with a price as well.

The professional distance thing has always been tricky for me. I get the rules. I’m a SHRM certified HR professional and spent years in HR roles. I also understand the logic of keeping a professional distance, particularly between men and women. I’ve seen the disastrous consequences of inappropriate relationships. I’ve fired more than one leader for a stupid romantic stunt. Love and work don’t mix. But connection and work do. And there’s the rub.

Lots of HR blogs provide the legal guidance and rules for Professional Distance and Empathy Guided Imagery Script. I’ve read several male leaders/bloggers who have shared their “rules” for professional relationships with women, such as: “never dine alone with a woman,” and  “never travel with a woman.” I get it and respect their choices.

Don't stand so close to me #professional distance Click To Tweet

And at the same time, I worry about what’s lost. Leadership is relational. If you’re a male leader who has big rules about being friends with women, but not with men (or vice versa), with whom do you build deeper connection and trust? Who becomes your go-to guy? Your good intentions have side effects, and the “good-old-boy” network unintentionally deepens.

In Defense of Real Connection

m_embraceSeveral “employees” (both men and women) that worked for me once upon a time, have developed into lifelong friends. I have deep relationships with male coworkers that last well beyond our current roles. We still have lunch, with no “business reason” to do so. Of course, those “no reason” lunches typically turn into a great networking opportunities, a brainstorming session, or getting unstuck. It’s cool. And if it ever feels less than cool (which every now and then it has), I back away fast, and invest elsewhere. Navigating a few awkward situations is worth it, for the hundreds of important connections that might otherwise have been avoided.

Even when I’m the boss, I push the boundaries. I get close to my team. I invite them to my home, they get to know my family. We talk about their dreams, their lives, and the struggles they have with their kids. I do too. We connect. We build trust. We grow.

The best conversations are often one-on-one. #leadership. Click To Tweet

Yes, we travel together and eat dinner with whomever is on the trip. We have boundaries, but we also have deep conversations about topics that matter. The best conversations are often one-on-one, in a relaxed environment.

If we worry too much about over-connecting, I would end up in an Applebees with my Blackberry and he would end up in the Chiles with his iPad, and we both lose an opportunity to grow as leaders and human beings.
And, if I don’t have the same concerns with my female team members, and we co-dine, I then grow more connected to them, which could lead to inadvertent bias down the road. Of course: never drink too much wine. That’s a recipe for disaster, no matter with whom you dine.

Benefits and Risks of Building Deeper Relationships

Becoming “friends” or connecting at any level with people at work is risky – and worth it. Know yourself and your situation. Be honest with your feelings, and know the risks and benefits.

Guidelines For Being Friends At Work

m_chartWorkplace relationships require situational leadership, good judgment, and common sense. Oh yes: and keeping your hormones in check.

  • Talk to your significant other and agree on an approach (My husband, Marcus, has endorsed this post.)
  • Be open with your significant other about your work relationships and communications
  • Let the relationship evolve over time
  • Keep open communication about professional boundaries
  • Talk about your commitment to your significant other and your investment in your family
  • Don’t entertain negative conversations about their significant other (or yours)
  • If you feel romantic attraction, revert to professional distance immediately

Professional distance or professional intimacy is a leadership choice. Developing more intimate professional relationships also means knowing and trusting yourself, having healthy, trusting and supportive relationships at home, and knowing when to back off. You won’t want to develop deeper relationships with everyone for a variety of reasons. But when it feels right, I worry about letting a universal set of gender-based “rules” get in the way.

Developing better professional relationships requires knowing yourself. Click To Tweet

I know this is controversial, so I’m hoping for a candid and healthy dialogue with you…

Do you err on the side of more or less professional distance? Why?

Karin Hurt is an experienced executive leading in a Fortune 15 company in the USA. Her award-winning blog Lets Grow Leaders has an engaged following who wrestle together on their leadership journeys.

Leave a Reply

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Clive Bevan

    We are in the relationship business and we need to operate at a higher level of genuine intimacy with the colleagues we work and engage with.

    Rituals > Pastimes > Games > Openness > Intimacy > Common purpose > Transform relationships first > then Performance.

  2. Dale Scherberger

    I am a retired veteran, and I have seen my fair share of relationships go bad between because someone crossed the line. The best piece of advice I can give is keep it professional.

  3. Clive Bevan

    I have been accused of being the cause of at least five divorces !! And I have to say there will be more.

    These were often amplified and quoted by the refusnicks who were part of a change programme where we used study books to stimulate thought on change.

    With a work community progressing through the uh-oh of change they need to understand Games that will be played and as the confusion of change kicks in colleagues need to understand WCWBFthis… who can we blame for this… and as you know the Consultants are an easy target.

    You caused his divorce !! Tell me more said I. Well he read that book you gave him and he moved out of his house.

    The good news is the book wasn’t one of mine. A group of colleagues had read ‘Who moved my cheese’ [ one of eight group study books used to stimulate connects between business issues and the book messages ] and were asked to present back on how they thought the messages connected with the workplace. [If you are not doing this as part of your engagement try it.]

    By now you will realise that I have been wrongly accused and that Spencer Johnson is really to blame or is he ? Was the study book the stimulus for change and could the same outcome have been triggered by many other events?

  4. Roshani Arumendo

    Be open with your significant other about your work relationships and communications

    Great post

  5. Name McRequired

    I would rather keep distance, I find it quite creepy when colleagues insist on developing a personal relationship with me, and downright infuriating when it becomes mandatory. I can’t tell whether this is becoming more or less common, but it’s too common. I also don’t drink with people I respect, both of my parents were alcoholics and I don’t see alcohol the same way most seem to, and I’m an angry drunk (it doesn’t matter how happy I am or how good the company is), so if I’m showing up to work nights out then it’s a good sign that there’s someone here I don’t like. Probably because they insisted that I turn up.

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