Wellness

Soft power in the work place. It’s a thing

Showing your softer side in the office = success in 2020. And it’s good news for your colleagues, too
Illustration: Toby Neilan

When it comes to work, ‘acting like a man’ has long been lauded as the secret to smashing the glass ceiling – which, naturally, you’d aggressively muscle through in your shoulder-padded power suit. And if you’re a man? You have to act more like one. But, inspired by status quo-disrupting movements such as #MeToo, climate-change activism and International Women’s Day (8 March), there’s a growing backlash against this hard-as-nails, boys-club-style leadership. And we couldn’t be more excited about its replacement: ‘soft power’, which celebrates the typically feminine skills we’ve often been encouraged to withhold in the workplace, such as our emotions, empathy and intuition. When a recent Deloitte survey asked 5,000 people to rank their most important qualities in a leader, soft-power qualities ruled: 71% would pick a communicative leader, while only 16% believed a boss needs to be authoritative. Deloitte dubbed this new type of leader the ‘Human CEO’ – aka someone who cultivates a supportive workplace where employees can bring their whole selves to work. Neil Shah, founder of The Stress Management Society, agrees that adopting an office ‘man-tra’ – a fake workplace persona – is exhausting. In fact, faking it at work is known as ‘emotional labour’ – a term coined by the American sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who first noticed the toll in airline cabin crew who have to fix a faux smile at 35,000ft. Today, studies have linked hiding or faking emotions at work to job stress and dissatisfaction, emotional exhaustion, depression and burnout. Wow!

The right balance

So celebrating being authentic, with skills such as communication, empathy and relationship-building, is a big wellbeing win. ‘But it doesn’t mean never putting your foot down or not having boundaries,’ explains Sarah Vermunt, a former business professor and author of Careergasm: Find Your Way To Feel-Good Work. ‘It’s about approachable, vulnerable leadership, rather than putting on a front or being aggressive. When people see that you’re genuine, they actually want to work with you and do their best for you.’ For inspiration, look to the warmth of Michelle Obama; Mary Berry dressed in pastel florals, ruling the kitchen; Angelina Jolie – Hollywood star, humanitarian and mum – bringing her kids to a film premiere. ‘These are women whose femininity doesn’t detract from their leadership qualities. In fact, it adds value to their leadership,’ says Neil.

Soft on you

The term ‘soft power’ first appeared in the late 80s, to describe international relations where countries made agreements by persuasion and attraction rather than force. So, how do you rock it, 2020-style? The ‘c’ word – connection – is still key. ‘It’s about fostering relationships with the people you work with,’ says Lotte Jeffs, author of How To Be A Gentlewoman: The Art Of Soft Power In Hard Times. ‘It’s about taking time to find out who they are outside of work, what their interests are, and what their family life’s about.’ Surprisingly, Lotte reckons technology is spreading the soft-power mindset, with social media teaching us how to find our voice, share our stories and build like-minded networks. Plus, workplace tech is forcing hard-power tyrants to rethink their ways. ‘These technologies only work because of the relationships behind them: you can’t be on a video call and behave like an idiot,’ she says. ‘And it’s toppling hierarchies. It’s not as easy to act like the most important person in the room when there is no room.’

Lotte believes the pay-off of closer colleague relations is that it allows us to ditch that stiff-upper-lip, ‘I’m fine’ response and, instead, forge genuine friendships. Research by workplace analyst Gallup found having a best friend at work makes us seven times more likely to like what we do by creating a strong social support network that makes our 9-5 feel worthwhile (and someone to turn to for advice, comradeship and a cuppa break). The result? We open up. ‘We’ve been conditioned to keep swathes of ourselves buttoned up,’ says Lotte. ‘Maybe you’ve got PMS and you’re feeling terrible, or you’re having a bad time at home. Having to come up with excuses makes it worse. But when you’re honest, up to the point where you feel comfortable, people are, on the whole, supportive and understanding.’ A perfect example of soft power’s bravado-free stance in action – and a team spirit we definitely have a soft spot for.

How about men, too?

Perhaps the biggest misconception about soft power is that it’s just for women. ‘I work with a lot of men as a career coach, and most of them are exhausted trying to keep to outdated expectations,’ says Sarah. ‘Society tells them they’re not allowed to be sensitive or gentle, or to express feelings. That’s archaic.’ There’s also an emerging field called ‘emodiversity’ (or emotional diversity), which theorises that, like your fruit and veg intake, your emotions should be as diverse as possible.

Two studies of more than 37,000 people found that having a wide emotional ‘ecosystem’ – being able to openly express lots of different emotional states, good and bad – was associated with better mental and physical health. It’s partly down to being authentic about what we’re feeling, but also because the more emotions we express, the more likely we are to stop one specific emotion (say anger) from dominating our feelings. Given that men suppress emotions more than women, and that’s linked to depressive symptoms, it’s likely that there’s something in it. But irrespective of gender, we need to be able to be ourselves at work. And for that to happen? The approach has to be softly, softly.

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