More specifically, let’s talk about sex, authority, and leadership. This topic is something that nearly everyone has an opinion on, but, unfortunately, discussion on the subject is often unwelcome in the public sphere, limited mainly to moral shaming and flag waving. And, to be sure, there are plenty of truly terrible and tragic examples of bad behavior. Too many to count. But when we (Elisabeth and Michael, Partners of KONU), decided to write this particular four-part series together, we felt it was important to come at it from a place of compassion and a recognition of our shared humanity; to explore challenges that even the most well-intentioned leaders face when it comes to sex and intimacy in our professional lives.
Part One: The Roots of Intimacy
We are not just our jobs. We are human beings, with all of our attendant biological needs, psychological hungers, and intellectual gifts, living together in community. We are parents, children, siblings, friends, enemies, lovers, strangers, and neighbors. Everything we do, whether we’re comfortable with it or not, is embedded in these webs of connections and influence.
One of the most fundamental and meaningful ways that we interact with each other is through physical intimacy. From the moment of birth, the physical contact between parents and their children serves as the bedrock for the family bond. A whole rush of happy chemicals flood their systems when a mother strokes her sleeping baby. Everytime a father lifts his daughter in his hands and touches his nose to hers. It is a bond that, at its best, carries across generations, from parent, to child, to grandchild, links in a generational chain connected by the physical intimacy of people who love each other.
“[Physical contact] is the first language we learn … our richest means of emotional expression.”
- Dacher Keltner, Born to Be Good:
The Science of a Meaningful Life
The Love Drug
Physical intimacy is also how we cement connections to the people we’re attracted to. The early days in a new relationship have often been equated to the high of a drug or the thrill of a daring adventure. We use words like ‘chemistry’ and ‘electricity.’ We are ‘intoxicated’ by this other person. This is, as it turns out, not far off the mark. Just google ‘neuroscience of love’ and you’ll find dozens of fascinating pieces exploring the distinct physiological markers of romantic love.
It’s why we’re so susceptible to the risks and dangers of workplace intimacy. We long to be near the people who attract us, and we’re often attracted to the people who are nearest to us. Put two reasonably compatible people together in a shared workspace, 40+ hours a week, and then expect them to keep their relationship purely professional. It almost seems like a joke!
But, like any high, the initial effects often wear off. Do I actually care about this person? Are they someone I can imagine sharing the simple, intimate, distinctly unsexy moments of a partnered couple? Are they worth potentially risking my credibility, my job, maybe even my family for? Is it just a thrill I am seeking and if so, why?
Here’s a story: Years ago, we worked with an international organization who had contracted a brilliant consultant to help the executives refigure their budget and navigate a stressful and difficult business transition. During this time, the consultant worked closely with many core members of the team. He was single and he became romantically involved first with one colleague, and - after that didn’t work out - a second colleague. People noticed. They started talking. When the second relationship failed, the negative ripples became too large to ignore. Despite this consultant’s brilliance, it became clear that he had to go. And with him went any hope that he could deliver on the work he was otherwise so expertly positioned to do.
Reading this from afar, we might be tempted to ask ourselves ‘why would he do this to his career?’ and ‘what was he (and what were they!) thinking?’ But it turns out that navigating the sexually charged waters that come with working in close proximity to other human beings is not nearly as simple as we might think.
Stay tuned next week for part two in our four-part series as we continue to unpack this dilemma.
If you happen to be in DC this month, you can join our open workshop on July, 26th: “Resist the Temptation: Leadership and Seduction” where offer a save space to explore your personal tuning and share how to avoid common traps for leaders when dealing with intimacy at the work place. Learn more here.