New research looks into ‘strategic flirtation’ in the workplace

(istock photo/photo illustration)
(istock photo/photo illustration)

Consultants have given us the term "strategic advantage." P.R. folks have given us "strategic communciations." And now, the academic world has bestowed upon us the term "strategic flirtation."

At this week's Academy of Management conference in Orlando, researchers will present a paper that uses that term to discuss how much flirting in the workplace happens in different kinds of organizational cultures--and what the consequences for doing so might be.

The paper, co-authored by Oklahoma State University management professor Alexis Smith and researchers from the University of Utah, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, is based on survey responses from 281 female attorneys at 38 law firms in the southeastern United States. Each lawyer responded to questions about how often they engage in "socio-sexual" behaviors to get ahead in the office, such as "I smile flirtatiously at certain men at work" or "I sometimes try to play dumb or act like I need help from a male at work." They also answered questions about how masculine or feminine their work environment would be described and how they were treated on an everyday basis at work.

This is where the paper gets interesting. A law firm was described as masculine not by how many men worked there, but by whether the women described it as aggressive, competitive, ambitious or risk-taking. Meanwhile, a firm's culture was described as feminine if terms like sensitive, loyal, warm and empathetic could be used about the environment.

The more masculine the culture, the researchers hypothesized, the more common the flirting would be. They were right: "A workplace that emphasizes the masculine norms of competition, ambition, and assertiveness," the researchers write in the paper, "will encourage employees to aggressively seek to use their assets to 'win' at whatever cost." Ahem.

Where they were wrong, however, was in judging how women who tried to flirt their way to the top in both types of cultures would be treated. They thought such behavior would be forgiven in both aggressive and sensitive organizations--masculine cultures would tolerate it, while the more compassionate "feminine" cultures would keep flirts from being mistreated, even if they weren't viewed very highly. As it turns out, though, the more competitive cultures weren't so forgiving. While their environments may have encouraged women to flirt, they didn't shield coy coworkers from judgement.

Bottom line from the research: Flirting at work--even if it's more common in some cultures--isn't such a good idea, no matter where you work. (A good reminder, perhaps, to the managers at Merrill Lynch who allegedly asked employees to read books about how appealing to men's egos or playing dumb might help you get ahead.) But you probably didn't need a study to tell you that.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

How we judge men's vs. women's mistakes

Women leaders and the Goldilocks syndrome

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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