What happens when our work life mirrors our personal life?

Intrinsic Group Boundary New Edited

Do we sometimes get drawn into the life of an organization that looks more like ‘relationship’ life? How do we differentiate our role as consultants to an organization when the organization is in pain, because boundaries have been broken and those boundaries seemingly have nothing to do with the organization’s mission or do they? What does safety have to do with boundaries? We all have a right to feel safe at work and boundaries in how we engage relationally with others at work can either make us feel safe or put us, our colleagues, our staff and our organizations at risk. Why is that a ‘safety’ issue? Let’s define ‘safety’ here as: a broken boundary that can make others feel uncomfortable and distracts us, our team and/or our manager from meeting work obligations. So, does it really matter if my manager is having an affair with my co-worker?

We sometimes forget that we are human beings who are working with other human beings in groups or environments we call organizations and all the amazing capacities and flaws of simply being human are at play all the time. How do we keep our feelings in check when we are at work and how can we use the best of those feelings to help inspire the development of a new idea or product, team morale, an underperforming employee or team member to re-commit to the work or a colleague who’s having a rough day?

Yes, it matters if your manager is having an affair or even if they are both single and dating.

Cara was supervising Jay; they had been working together for about 6 months and there was a clear attraction between the two of them as observed by other members of the team. Cara was an excellent manager of a team of editors and a team of new business development at a publishing house. She often had great ideas about new projects and had wonderful relationships with writers who welcomed her ideas. She was a rising star and she had worked hard to get there. Jay was young and fairly new in the industry and had great potential. Cara was terrific about mentoring all her staff and everyone there respected her. However, lately, Jay’s colleagues started to notice that he and Cara were spending an unusual amount of time together and often after work, staying late on projects or leaving together. In the beginning, other staff just thought it was coincidental, but lately it was becoming very obvious. Jay would get a few comments here and there that he would just ignore. Recently, however, Trina had a meeting with Cara whom she found distracted and not particularly interested in a project that Trina wanted to review with her. I was contacted by Cara’s manager, Paul who thought that perhaps there were performance issues emerging in the division since a few of Jay’s colleagues had made comment in ear shot of Paul – comments such as, ‘ I can’t seem to get direction from her on this project’ ; ‘ she only seems to be interested in Jay’s project; he seems to be her golden boy – bet he’ll be promoted’; ‘ She’s really changed’. Paul asked me to go in and fix the team. That is often the initial concern – something is broken and needs to be fixed. In this case, someone or some folks were acting differently than they had previously acted and it had to do with attraction. In this case, attraction and perhaps love was not only distracting for other team members who then weren’t getting what they needed from Cara, but it created a lack of equity by virtue of a complex relational issue that was outside the bounds of a professional relationship.

Love and attraction are part of being human and we can’t always control where and when we fall in love or to whom we are attracted. I would never take a position against love or the natural tendency for attraction that might happen at work- it’s what we do about it that counts…in the many consultations of which I have been a part, I always celebrate love and then suggest strongly that one of the two quits I never comment on the morality of choices that folks make, I comment on the destruction that it leaves behind when not acknowledged and solved – the individuals involved, the team, the organization, the public in some cases…yes, it erodes trust and is damaging even if the individuals are stellar performers.

A manager’s job is to support staff in performing responsibilities at work, meaning giving feedback, guidance, inspiring and creating an environment of equity – equity goes out the window when a manager’s personal life imposes upon work life – I have yet to meet a manager who can successfully accomplish this and if that did exist, the mere perception that the manager can’t be equitable, becomes a reality for staff and, then I always ask the manager, was that worth it? Now, that said, in my 25 years consulting, I admit, love happens at work – that is where we spend lots of our time, right?

In meeting with Paul, then Cara and her team, it was clear that Cara’s team lacked Cara’s previous strong leadership and had lost confidence in her ability to be an effective manager while she was engaged in a relationship with Jay. Something had to shift. Initially Cara and Jay disagreed, stating that they had a right to date whomever they wanted – yes, they do, but not if it impacts work and it was. Through several honest exchanges with Cara, Jay as well as the team , it becomes clear that the only way to rebuild trust with the team was for Cara to acknowledge her humanness (falling in love) and to own her current, hopefully momentary, lack of support for her team. It was absolutely necessary for Cara to re-commit to her team and the mission of the division. In addition, she and Jay had to personally determine either to continue their relationship with one of them resigning or to end their relationship and stay at the same publishing house. However, if they remain at the publishing house, they could no longer remain on the same team or in any type of reporting relationship due to the past nature of their relationship. In the event, they both were to stay, Paul would need to reconfigure managerial responsibilities or perhaps offer Jay a transfer to another department and report to another manger. As a consultant, my role was to help this division manage this situation and to support the team in rebuilding trust with the leadership. It was an opportunity to coach the leadership and to help the team begin to re-experience a new trust that needed to develop.

What if those two individuals are not in a reporting relationship, but just colleagues on a team? What does that say about the potential environment? Who wants to come to work and wonder if your co-worker is going to be in a bad mood, because he doesn’t want to see your cubicle mate, because they had a fight last night. Essentially, there is always a risk when romance/relationships happen at work. Putting people together at work for long hours with sometimes similar interests sets up an environment ripe for possibilities. Our role as consultant is to serve as a mirror to reflect the actual environment as it is reported to us and to share our knowledge of other organizations as well as typical human behavior in order for the organization to make decisions that are in her best interest by always asking, ‘In what ways, are we meeting our mission so we can get closer to our vision?’

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