Broken heart with love sign on wooden bacground

I saw the heartbreak in my neighbor’s eyes as she shared that her marriage of over three decades was ending.  It’s a hurt that will always be there.  I also heard of a work place romance that went south, and the people that were hurt, and the financial risk that was created was incredible. These situations are not new, just disappointing.

I was reflecting on this with a female colleague of mine, even sharing my own “emotional affair” from over 30 years ago.  I told her that I had rationalized that since my indiscretion was emotional and not physical that it was somehow more excusable.  As I found out then, that was not the case.  She reinforced this understanding when she told me, “It is easier for a woman to deal with a man’s physical affair than an emotional one.”

While my behavior was not the root cause of the end of my first marriage, it didn’t help; the embarrassment I experienced, as well as the understanding of the impact, were painful and powerful lessons.  In choosing to go down the path I did I destroyed the trust of others.

The purpose of my writing is to focus on workplace relationships, and to explore their genesis and the impact that I have observed over time.  As always, I am trying to improve the version of who we are.

I understand that the genesis of ‘bad behavior’ may be a variety of things.  The actions may seem justified, particularly if you have lived in an ‘emotional desert’ for some time.  Many people can appear to be an ‘oasis.’  When these ‘relationships’ are in the work environment, the number of people potentially ‘damaged’ by our actions expands exponentially.  The risks are greater, and it is not just about the people.

It begins innocently enough.  You are feeling some ‘void,’ be it physical or emotional.  There is a look or a comment that is ‘innocent’ flirting at work.  You begin to share more about your void; you get a sympathetic ear; there is an emotional connection.  The emotional connection is like a drug.  At this point, there is a line and a choice in front of us that if we cross we won’t be able to put “it” back in the bottle.

While we are focused on what is happening in those more intimate emotional and/or physical moments, it appears that we are the only ones involved.  Let me share what is happening beyond your focus.  Others are noticing the amount of time and attention you are paying to the ‘fatal attraction.’  They begin to wonder.  Already, energy is being siphoned off work and is being focused somewhere else, less productive.

As the attention of others increases, those who are peers and teammates begin to question, and depending on the direction the ‘relationship’ takes, the loss of trust from the team is a real possibility.  If the relationship is with a subordinate, you bring into play the possibility of creating a ‘hostile work environment’ for the other person.  If this becomes true, there is significantly higher risk for you and the organization.

While these events can exist at any level of the organization, they are magnified when it occurs at the senior level – particularly if the senior level person’s relationship is with a subordinate.  There are more eyes watching, and there is more at stake at this level.  An ‘unintended consequence’ of our actions is significant damage to the trust within the team.  There is also a fracture in the work energy and cohesiveness of the team.  Often, ‘the situation’ becomes the ‘elephant in the room’ in meetings, and other conversation.  The other unintended consequence can be the loss of a job, creating even more risk for the organization and the individual.

The ‘significant damage’ is that these events go far outside of the two people involved.  The amount of energy, time and expense it can take to deal with these issues can be staggering.  The larger expense is in the personal toll that often takes place on your reputation and the trust lost with your team.

I was fortunate.  My indiscretion was not within the workplace, although there were other choices within the workplace that, had I thought more carefully about, I would have concluded I was not being as professional as I wanted to be.

In talking to those who have been involved in these relationships, including myself, there is always regret and always a recognition that the price was much greater than what we thought. We recognized how quickly things moved from ‘innocence’ to ‘out of control.’  There was a shared empty feeling that often accompanied the events.

Regardless of “why” the relationship started, are you willing to sacrifice all that you have built – to permanently damage key relationships, your reputation, your career?  Knowing that we aren’t always rational in our choices, my encouragement is that we build a “pause” button in our emotions that will allow us to think more rationally about our choice(s) and their impact.  Maybe, just maybe, that pause will allow the prefrontal cortex to do its job of more rational thought, and help us avoid a major catastrophe in our lives.

To a better you…