The Dilemma of Physical Touch & Appreciation in the Workplace

April 28, 2016 12:00 am Published by

awkward hug2“Physical touch in the workplace-to show appreciation? Really?” is one of the most common responses we get from some participants when training groups in the 5 Languages of Appreciation.

I was in the midst of posting this article when a friend forwarded me this video aired by NBC Nightly News about Chobani Yogurt, where the owner is sharing ownership of the company with his employees.  But the video also shows Mr. Chobani hugging his employees and the piece ends with the statement: “where the money means a lot but being appreciated means even more”.

Using physical touch to communicate appreciation to colleagues is one of the most lively topics of discussion — both ways:  by those who are repulsed by the idea of anyone touching them at work, and by others who feel strongly that showing appreciation physically is desired, powerful, and healthy. The first group wants a workplace totally devoid of physical touch, while the latter group cannot visual a healthy, positive workplace without encouraging physical actions.

The Issues

Let me briefly summarize some of the main concerns on each side of the matter. (By the way, this is a great exercise to learn to view situations from a different perspective than your own.)  Those uncomfortable with physical touch in the workplace (and sometimes in any type of relationship) believe it is:

  •  A violation of personal boundaries. To be touched by anyone, at all, feels like a boundary violation to some. For others, a handshake is okay but any other type of touch is uncomfortable. And the continuum continues, depending on the individual and type of relationship they have with the other person.
  • Incongruent with workplace relationship norms. Some people believe that workplace relationships should be more formal and distant in nature and physical touch isn’t consistent with this type of relationship.
  • A form of sexual harassment. Regardless of the type of touch, some people will view it as unwanted and offensive (regardless of whether or not it is perceived as sexual) and should be avoided altogether.
Supporters of appropriate physical touch feel it is a form of communicating support and appreciation cite the following:
  • Physical touch has been an important part of their culture and/or life experience. Physical touch is more deeply rooted in some cultures (Italian, Portuguese, Latin America) than others (North European countries, Asia) and there are obviously regional differences in the US (the Deep South versus the Northeast).
  • Appropriate physical touch communicates differently than words or actions (and sometimes more deeply). There just is a different quality of communication that occurs through physical touch as opposed to words or other actions.
  • In certain life experiences, people should have the option to use appropriate physical actions. When a colleague experiences a traumatic event (the death of a family member) or an extremely positive event (a highly prestigious award or promotion), a physical response by colleagues often can be extremely appropriate.
What’s the Purpose?
Generally speaking, most appropriate physical touch in the workplace is spontaneous celebration:
  •  A “high five” when you and your team completes a project.
  •  “A fist bump” when you successfully solve a problem.
  •  “A pat on the back (or slap on the shoulder)” when you have accomplished a difficult goal.
  •  “A congratulatory handshake” when you close a big sales deal.
Usually there is an acceptable standard of behavior for different work settings and relationships (although not everyone accurately picks up the cues of what is acceptable and what feels “weird”).
  1. The recipient of a physical gesture is “always” the person who has the authority to determine what is an acceptable form of physical touch to them.
  2. When in doubt, ask first. Exclaiming, “I am so happy for you!” and asking, “May I give you a hug?” is more appropriate than exclaiming, “I am so happy for you!”, giving them a hug, and then stating, “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself — I’m just naturally a ‘hugger.'”
Where We Landed – In the Middle
Just to be straightforward: physical touch in the workplace may be both very positive and healthy, and extremely unhealthy and damaging, depending on the individuals involved, the types of touch, and the cultural context. This fact, I believe, contributes to the strongly held belief by both sides of the issue. And, given the individual and cultural differences involved, I believe both perspectives are equally valid. Hence, the dilemma (and discussion) will probably continue.
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April 28, 2016 12:00 am

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