One of the most important things you can do when you feel the pull of workplace intimacy is acknowledge that you’re human. As Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy point out, “you cannot stay alive by simply putting a silencer on yourself.” Every human has needs, and the question here is not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘where.’ Where do we find agency and control in our lives? Where do we find meaning and purpose? Where do we turn for love, intimacy and affirmation?
If intimacy is absent from your life, you are more likely to try and feed your needs in the workplace in risky and inappropriate ways.
Here are some risk factors to pay attention to:
Do you have enough people, outside of work, who care about you and who offer you love and intimacy (not necessarily sex)? An intimate partner? A dear friend? A network of peers? If not, you are at risk.
Or maybe you have that partner, but the intimacy seems to have dried up, the sparks gone cool and quiet?
Maybe you find yourself overworked and overstressed. You barely see your family or friends, you’re growing weary of the challenges in front of you, and there seems to be no end in sight.
Perhaps you’ve started to believe your own hype. Everyone at work praises you, and you find yourself thinking you deserve special treatment. If so, then you’re already in troubled waters.
Or maybe you look at yourself in the mirror, and you don’t even recognize yourself. You’ve become so swept up in the work — in the drama, in the rat race, in the intensity — that you don’t know who you are anymore.
Do any of these scenarios resonate with you? If so, it’s important to recognize and honor the deeply human needs and hungers they represent. But if you let these needs and hungers go unheeded, it may lead you to make shortsighted and risky decisions
But how do we hold steady in the face of these hungers?
Connect With Your Confidants
If you want to survive and thrive in the emotionally complex work of leadership, then you need what Heifetz and Linsky call anchors; people and practices who can help you stay grounded and stable when the hurricane winds threaten to carry you away.
One of the most powerful anchors you can find in life is a confidant, someone who we love and trust who has no stake in your professional goals beyond their desire to see you happy, healthy, and prosperous.
That last point - people who have no stake in your professional goals - is key. In your work, you will also need allies. That is, people who are invested with a mutual sense of purpose and mission, who deeply understand the work at-hand, and who can stand alongside you to get that work done. But no matter how strong the alliance, you should be careful not to confuse allies with confidants.
An ally is someone you work alongside with. As a result, boundaries are essential. There are simply some things that you cannot share with an ally, for risk of damaging the alliance or undercutting the work. What’s more, allies are often the very people whom we are most at-risk for crossing those inappropriate intimacy we’ve spent so much time discussing. The professional closeness of being allies ("we're in this together") and the resulting emotional intimacy may transmute into physical intimacy, undermining the very goals you’re both working so hard to achieve.
A confidant, on the other hand, is someone who can hold literally anything you share with them without judgement, fear, or the risk of betrayal. They are people who, in the words of Heifetz and Linsky:
If you’re in a position of senior authority, confidants may be the only person who can tell you the truths you need to hear, who can take the risk of speaking truth to your power without risk of your reprimand. This is one of the greatest gifts anyone can give you.
Ideally, you can lean on this person to help you beforeyou tumble into indiscretion. But even if you do stray, knowing that you can re-collect yourself, share your regrets and fears, and be received without judgement by at least one person can mean the difference between holding together or falling apart. That person can give you the space you need to admit to your errors and work to correct them, getting back in the game of making the world better instead of simply feeding your own needs.
A professional form of confidants are coaches. Both Elisabeth and Michael have worked with different coaches in the past decade, and have found it particularly anchoring to have someone professional whose only job is to take care of you. Someone who listens deeply and helps you make sense of the difficult situations you find yourself in. Someone who has the tools and the appropriate distance to see you through the darkness. That’s why the KONU team provides 1:1 coaching work as part of our business. We know first-hand that the right coach can make all the difference, serving as a confidant and thought partner in times of need, and we work hard to offer that to the leaders and organizations we partner with.
Seek Your Sanctuary
It’s when we’re doing our most difficult work that we most need time to slow down, reflect, and reconnect with the parts of ourselves that make us feel whole, alive, and human. It’s also when we’re most likely to give up that time, relinquishing the very places and practices that help us thrive.
I mean, how can I possibly get to the gym or take time for a quiet walk when that presentation to the board is happening first thing tomorrow morning?
Oh yes, I’ll definitely take that romantic weekend away with my partner just as soon this project is done.
And I know my son’s recital is tomorrow night, but things are going crazy with this client, and they need me on point until the issue is resolved.
On and on it goes. The next project comes up. The next presentation. The next fire to put out. As a person of influence, the demands on your time can be unceasing, and if you do not carve out space in your day to restore your heart and soul, you will suffer, and sooner or later, you will slip.
In the words of Heifetz and Linsky:
When Michael moved to the United States about 6 years ago, he found himself disoriented not only be the new professional and personal challenges of arriving in a new culture - but also by the lack of his own favorite sanctuaries in Germany: the friends kitchen table with a specific kind of tea, the German Sauna, or just a coffee in Berlin’s beautiful cafés. It took him a year or two to learn that he would need to find new sanctuaries in Washington, DC, if he he was going to survive and thrive. He decided to stop mourning that the saunas and coffee shops are not as nice in DC as in Berlin, and instead started going to Yoga and Unitarian Church.
Living a Life of Delight and Purpose
After reading all this, I hope you’re not thinking that we are against sex and intimacy! Just the opposite in fact. Not only is there nothing wrong with sex, we believe that sex and physical intimacy enrich our lives, improve our relationships, and help us stay connected to the people we’re close to. Sex is both a delightful pleasure and an essential part of our survival as a species. The point here is to do what’s right for you to ensure you are getting the essential physical and emotional intimacy you need to survive and thrive without undermining the leadership work you’ve devoted your life to!
If you’re already in a relationship, that may mean taking time and energy to rekindle the sparks with your partner. Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist notable for exploring the tension between our need for security and the competing need for freedom in human relationships, points out that much of what we perceive as dull or uninteresting only appears that way because we’ve become desensitized to the person we spend so much time with. We begin to take them for granted.
And when we do that, we lose sight of the fact that they are not just ‘our husband’ or ‘our girlfriend’ or ‘someone we’re seeing.’ They are full, real, three-dimensional human beings with passions, interests, and desires, many of which may always remain a mystery to us if we are unwilling to approach the relationship with fresh eyes. So if you’re in a relationship that seems to be fizzling, the first step is to take the time to open up to each other about your desires and needs, about what’s working and what needs to change. By exploring together, you can almost certainly rekindle the sparks that ignited your relationship, and, perhaps, discover new ones you didn’t yet know existed.
And if you’re not in a relationship, know that it's perfectly acceptable to look for consensual physical intimacy elsewhere, in whatever way is safe and healthy for you and the people you’re exploring with.
BUT - and this is the key message here - find the sex and intimacy you need outside of the workplace. If you want to be a leader - that is, if you want to be someone who lives with purpose and makes a positive difference in the lives of others - don't become distracted from exercising leadership because your personal needs aren’t being met. If you do, you will destroy that which means the most to you.