The Blog

Why We Need More Man Hugs In The Office

What is it with men and hugs? The other week after an episode of The Apprentice, Twitter lit up with clips and comments on the "man-hug that never was" between the latest victim of the boardroom, Oliver, and one of his team mates, Paul.

What is it with men and hugs? The other week after an episode of The Apprentice, Twitter lit up with clips and comments on the "man-hug that never was" between the latest victim of the boardroom, Oliver, and one of his team mates, Paul. What could have been a handshake or a warm hug of commiseration from "survivor" Paul turned into what looked like an aggressive shoulder barge.

Now we all know that The Apprentice is as much about business as Bake Off is about quick, healthy tea-time meals. What The Apprentice does have in common with business however, is that it insists on two contradictory behaviours - being competitive, whilst working collaboratively in a team.

Individual goals don't encourage team work

My company designs team building simulations, where groups under pressure work together. If a team is successful, there is usually much cheering, backslapping and, yes, hugging. But watch what happens if we then ask this "group of winners" to decide who was a particular "high-performer" or to rank themselves in order of contribution. Both things that are seen as perfectly normal in most workplaces.

The happy team atmosphere quickly evaporates. Sometimes the teams refuse to pick someone out, or the chosen "star-performer" shares their bonus with the group. Sometimes the group turns their anger upon us, the facilitators. Which is brilliant because it's the only reaction that mimics real life.

In real life no one shares their bonus with the team

No one refuses to take part in the annual rituals of appraisals, rankings and individual pay raises and bonuses. But there is a lot of anger. We're being asked to do those two contradictory things; work as a team but never forget we are being judged as individuals. It's easy to fail at one or both. The prospect of failure drives a lot of bad behaviour.

Anger might be shown openly when someone "loses it" but it's more likely to seep into email communication or water cooler gossip and criticism. It might lead to bullying behaviour or people not sharing information.

How do we know that this is happening?

Most companies carry out workplace surveys to take the pulse of the people working there, known in corporate-speak as "Employee Engagement Surveys." Gallup, an organisation that creates and runs some of these surveys, has analysed over 25 million responses and found that less than a quarter of people actively love their job. There's about the same number who actively dislike their work and spread their discontent whenever they can (see bad behaviour above). That leaves us with about half the work force who are just present; neither inspired and eager or openly angry and resistant. Is it any wonder productivity is low and stress is high?

Employee Engagement really measures love and loyalty

That's right, underneath it all, we're looking to be loved at work. The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we leave our emotions at home and go to work to behave and think rationally. The neuroscience is clear; we feel first and think second. The more stressed we are, the greater the gap between emotion and rationalisation. If you know that, then some of that "weird" self-defeating behaviour on the Apprentice makes more sense?

Hugs really help

Hugging releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone. This article summarises some key benefits, including lowering your blood pressure and reducing stress. Hugs at work can be hormonal "thank yous" that can increase connection and resilience, leading to smarter thinking and better results.

Hugging is an instinctive need we have, which is why we see so much of it on our team building programmes and in our leadership workshops. Yet, in writing this post I couldn't find a single image in any photo library that showed men hugging at work.

When given a chance to reflect, people see that being "professional" does not rule out being human. Being human requires that we recognise, not minimise or deny, our emotions. Apprentice Paul had already been described as "moody" and "aggressive", yet in the boardroom I could see that both he and Oliver also had tears in their eyes. No one acknowledged this cocktail of emotions, but we could all see them in that awkward hug/shove.

Let's use our words

It's the expression I used to use with my sons when they were young and prone to throwing things or themselves around in anger; use your words. It's high time we all developed a habit of naming our own emotions - rather than criticising others for how we think they're feeling.

We need to reach out to each other whether we've succeeded or failed. A hug of empathy and recognition - "it could have been me" - would help all the Pauls and Olivers out there.

Let's stop using "emotional" as a criticism

I'm not suggesting you start work tomorrow by enveloping every one of your colleagues or team in a bear hug. Start slowly, maybe with the help of a coach, experimenting with ways to share feelings. And maybe, just maybe, when we stop denying our need for real connection, the hugs will follow naturally.