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posted: 8/18/2013 7:02 AM

Strategic flirting at work? What???

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  • At last week's Academy of Management conference in Orlando, Fla., researchers presented a paper that uses that term to discuss how much workplace flirting happens in different organizational cultures -- and its consequences, which are not good.

      At last week's Academy of Management conference in Orlando, Fla., researchers presented a paper that uses that term to discuss how much workplace flirting happens in different organizational cultures -- and its consequences, which are not good.
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By Jena McGregor, The Washington Post

Consultants have given us the term "strategic advantage." Public relations folks offer "strategic communications." And now, the academic world has bestowed upon us "strategic flirtation."

At last week's Academy of Management conference in Orlando, Fla., researchers presented a paper that uses that term to discuss how much workplace flirting happens in different organizational cultures -- and its consequences.

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The paper is based on survey responses from 281 female lawyers at 38 law firms in the Southeast. 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.

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.

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 will encourage employees to aggressively seek to use their assets to 'win' at whatever cost."

Where they were wrong, however, was in judging how flirtation 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, the more competitive cultures weren't so forgiving. While their environments may have encouraged women to flirt, they didn't shield coy co-workers from judgment. Bottom line: Flirting at the office -- even if it's more common in some cultures -- isn't such a good idea. But you probably didn't need a study to tell you that.

• McGregor writes The Washington Post's PostLeadership column about leading in a changing time.

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