Camaraderie is a defining hallmark of teams that have achieved success, even – or perhaps especially – if they didn’t quite see eye to eye with each other as they were working towards their breakthrough. A traditional way of expressing camaraderie is the workplace equivalent of a public display of affection (PDA) – namely, hugging.
But just as romance-phobic individuals regard PDAs with a certain squeamishness, it seems that, for some, hugs trigger a similar reaction: in a BBC News opinion piece,  author and management blogger Alison Green  writes: “Hugging used to be reserved for close family and friends, but it’s been infiltrating professional contexts for a while now, leaving huggers delighted and the rest of us shrinking back in the hopes that we can avoid unwanted embraces. Hugging hasn’t become the norm in every industry, but there are entire fields where it’s common in both greetings and goodbyes, especially as workplaces become increasingly informal.”
Green notes: “That can be odd for those of us who aren’t huggers, or who aren’t huggers at work. And the fact that different people have different preferences around hugging – and that there aren't any clear-cut rules for when you’re expected to hug or how to avoid a hug – makes the whole endeavour fraught with awkwardness and peril. We could all benefit from a universal code of conduct for hugging at work. Of course, if I wrote that code, it would just say ‘don’t hug colleagues, end of story.’”
She adds: “Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon, but really, isn't it better to err on the side of not making someone uncomfortable with unwanted physical contact? That’s especially true at work, where it can be hard for people to say ‘no, I’d really rather not hug’ because of a fear of seeming cold or unfriendly to people we work with. But it’s also okay to come out and declare yourself a hug-free zone! There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m not really a hugger, but it’s great to see you.’ Let’s band together and reclaim our personal space!”
Of course, personal space was a key issue behind former Pixar chief John Lasseter’s move to take a sabbatical last year  as he admitted to dispensing “unwanted hugs”: a scandal that eventually caused him to quit his role for good.  With the #MeToo campaign now a year old, are open displays of close contact something that organisations can ill afford?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Part of being self-aware is understanding the impact you have upon other people. And a lot of people, as Green points out, just don’t want to be hugged. As such, you should be able to pick up the signs and – I would suggest – err on the side of caution.”
Cooper notes: “by any assessment, the questions of how and when it’s okay to hug at work are absolute minefields. With the growing interrelatedness, complexity and globalisation of business, and the efforts that some organisations are making to be inclusive, diverse and representative, we have so many different cultures coming together in the workplace. And we already know, even if we take a fairly traditional view of what some cultures like and don’t like – if ever we could have been sure in the first place – it is indeed the case now that there’s far less certainty about what’s acceptable.”
She adds: “we at the Institute see self-awareness as an important part of leadership, and leadership-learning. A key aspect of that quality is being able to tune into – and recognise – what other individuals are feeling. So, when it comes to how you treat someone else’s personal space, you cannot impose your own views or presumptions upon them.”
For further thoughts on self-awareness, check out these learning materials from the Institute
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