Obstacle #11: To flirt or not to flirt at work

Flirting is a power tactic.

Whether at work or at play, the art of flirtation is about persuasion and control.  And fun.  I am not asserting that flirting is positive or negative in any situation. This obstacle is one each of us needs to figure out individually, the way in which we’re most comfortable working through it.  So let’s consider the art – and obstacle – of flirtation at the office.

First, just what is flirting?  For the purposes of the work environment discussion, and as evaluated in various studies, flirting is defined as personal charm that incorporates playfulness, flattery and a level of sexiness.  This is a step beyond friendliness, which is defined as exhibiting warmth and interest.  Flirting is deliberate attempts to have the opposite party notice your particular charm.

So, what if you knew that flirting benefitted you in negotiations?

Women who flirted during negotiations in which a clear “zero sum” exchange needed to take place (goods for money, for example) obtained better terms when their counterpart was male.  If you knew you could receive a higher discount or a better set of terms, would you smile a little more brightly or offer a compliment?  Put so bluntly, it feels icily calculated.  But think for a minute about the men you work with – if you share a private joke, a sidelong glance, if you touch his arm or tell him you like the way his shirt brings out the color of his eyes, are you friendly or flirting? When men have an elevation in mood due to what they perceive as flirting (and flattery), they are more amenable in negotiations.

But not all the time.  When women flirt with men in negotiations where both parties are trying to achieve a gain, they are less successful. The overall success of a mutual negotiation is higher – a larger pie is carved out between two friendly parties.  But the slicing of that pie does not favor the flirting woman.  She managed to improve the benefits to both of them, by helping to expand the potential rewards, but statistically she isn’t able to claim her competitive share of that pie.

So perhaps you could argue that you’d rather not take chances on the type of misunderstanding flirting at work can bring and since not all negotiations are successful, you will rely on your no-nonsense smarts to work through those delicate conversations.  And that’s certainly an option.

But this obstacle has another slippery slide.  It’s not your standard eight foot wall to scale.  It’s more like that inverted wall where you have to pull your weight up the inverted side and then use all your strength to haul yourself over the inverted top and avoid toppling down the “easy” side, which can result in injury.  And mud.  There’s always mud.

Consider the challenge of likability.  Women in leadership roles fight the likability battle regularly.  If we’re assertive, we’re bossy or a less kind b-word.  If we insist or debate, we’re pushy and hard.  We use “male” qualities to manage and get ahead in a man’s environment, and yet those same qualities that brand men as strong leaders make women brassy and cold.  The social cost is high. This impression also leads to misconception around competence – women who are viewed as overly aggressive by their male peers are also viewed as less competent.  Women who flirt with their peers, on the other hand, are perceived as friendly.  When women are perceived as friendly and competent, their ability to be heard and negotiate is amplified.

What if you knew that men flirt more than women in the workplace to get what they want? 

Catherine Hakim, social scientist and author of Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom, says we should unabashedly use our feminine charms.  We have them, why hide them?  Men have no such qualms about using their charisma or looks if they believe it will provide some leverage, so why are we ashamed to?

Of course, there is also the risk of misunderstanding.  Is a real relationship blossoming here or is this merely bantering fun at work? We – men and women – can feel taken advantage of once we realize the other person wanted nothing more than that moment of flirtation – and perhaps  for you to help write that update for the CEO’s pet project.

So where do you stand on the concept of flirting in the work place?  Victoria Pynchon advises that if you’re going to do it, do it genuinely. Don’t fake compliments, don’t flirt with men you’re not comfortable with.  Rather, play into the positive qualities before you. “I’ve never known anyone who was so thoroughly repugnant that I couldn’t find something to love in them.”

So how do you overcome this obstacle?  And how do you handle others who flirt with you?

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