For many years, I have heard the phrase “TOUCHY FEELY” used by managers of both genders, to describe a variety of things and behaviors in the workplace.  “Oh, you mean that touchy feely stuff'” or “I don’t do that touchy feely thing”, or “this isn’t going to involve that touchy feely business is it?” are commonly what you hear.  But what do expressions like this actually mean and convey about the person who uses them?

It is, of course, impossible to know with certainty what attitudes lie behind the use of the “touchy feely” phrase by any specific individual.  But as I can never recall hearing anybody say anything like “I truly enjoy and look forward to the touchy feely side of management”, I can only conclude that the phrase has a somewhat negative, dismissive, something to be avoided, or something for others to do connotation for most of those who use it.

In my experience, the phrase “touchy feely” has almost always been used by managers to describe aspects of managing real human beings.  These aspects, in particular, involve emotion-laden things like:  personal feelings; sensitivity; self-disclosure; human life experiences; temperament; relationship and trust building; human shortcomings and self-destructive behavior; cultural differences; pain and suffering; self-esteem and confidence issues; and the inter-personal requirements for true team and community building.  Moreover, when uttered by many males, I have often sensed that, for them, it clearly is code for things they believe women do and thus would be better left to them.

One reason I have never cared for the phrase is that it often feels like a pejorative, patronizing, insult directed at those who appear too attentive to feelings and emotions; the all too human elements of the management business.  Its use easily conjures up the notion of a place its user feels far too dangerous or personally threatening to warrant much serious attention.  Moreover, the phrase reveals a fundamental misconception — or deliberate act of denial  — concerning the realities of managing:  EVERYTHING ABOUT MANAGING IS ALWAYS ABOUT PEOPLE, THEIR FEELINGS AND ALL.

What the best managers understand deep in their bones, is that there is no distinction between the job or mission components of a business/organization, and the people management side.  They are the same thing, inextricably interconnected.  It is business or mission through people and all that reality demands of those who manage.  I have often asked a client or workshop participant to name one thing they do as a manager that does not have human beings attached to it in some way.  I am still waiting for an answer.

The best managers also understand that if they hope to be decent at their job, they must regularly access the broadest possible range of their thinking, emotional, and behavioral repertoire and potential.  Thus, they reject out of hand any notion that management skills fit simplistically into a taxonomy labeled hard or soft.  And they absolutely reject any notion of gender specific behavior.

The best managers grasp that all of us have the potential to respond to others across a broad intellectual and emotional range.  The real issue is situational appropriateness.  I have seen extraordinary managers of both genders at work.  They have exhibited exceptional decisiveness, tough-mindedness, cool-headed logic, and a purposeful assertiveness when required.  They have also demonstrated exceptional insight into human nature, understanding, and compassion in building and motivating a cohesive, high-performing team.

Unfortunately, I have also seen certain male managers lampooned for seeming too comfortable with the emotional side of their job and many female managers typecast either as softies because of their emotional expressiveness, or saddled with unflattering labels for their assertiveness and toughness. While our society has not always helped by perpetuating many of these negative gender stereotypes, the best managers manage to ignore them.

In essence, the best managers are legitimately who they are, comfortable in their own skin, not overly identified as a man or woman, just simply as ME.  This creates a sense of authenticity that makes them managers with whom we wish to work.  Time, I think, we relegate the phrase “touchy feely” to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Categories: Managing & Leading, Managing People

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