Somebody to lean on

HR manager can be a lonely role to fill, often isolated from the rest of the organisation and from those individuals involved in recruiting. A soul mate, someone to fight your corner and share your objectives with, may be just what you need – or maybe not

When you are old and grey and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, perhaps you will pour yourself a nostalgic glass of gently chilled chardonnay and slowly drift back over the course of your career. Ah the peaks! Oh those confounded troughs! But who, I wonder, will you single out as your main companion through those times? Who shared the aspirations, joined the celebrations and kept the confidences? Who was your chief departmental soul mate?

My first inclination was to go for Claudette, a dazzling Brixtonian wit with whom it was easy to wile away the hours switching all the office fans on to high in preparation for the annual visit of the (wig-wearing) US head honcho. By the time we had dissected the private lives of the entire production department we couldn’t have been matier. But partners in crime do not necessarily equate to soul mates. And soul mates are different from friends. “They’re closer, they’re in that blur between friends and family,” says Gwenllian Williams, director of business at psychology consultant CGR. “A soul mate accepts you unconditionally.”

But office soul mates are different again. Indeed, Williams believes that few people at work enjoy the relationship in its purest sense because it implies greater personal disclosure than most are prepared to risk. A far better measure of someone’s compatibility in the office is the extent to which basic values are shared and your mutual attitude to the aims of the organisation.

“Soul mates share a common objective,” adds Colin Selby, an occupational psychologist with Selby Millsmith. “They might be temperamentally different in terms of their approach to work – one might be intense, the other laid back – but they’re complementary. They have a shared system of values.” So if you hold strong views on the immorality of taking sick leave simply because it’s due, you are unlikely to bond with a person who takes the leave as a matter of course. And if you can’t agree about that, it’s improbable that you’ll find common ground on more serious issues – unless you work very hard at it.

Evidence from the American Psychological Society suggests that we are remarkably adroit at sniffing out potential soul mates within the first few seconds of acquaintance. In a recent study, researchers coined the phrase “sixth sense” to describe the phenomenon. They claimed that the main criterion we use to make this assessment is the other person’s intelligence. Although the study was set up to conceal any single obvious indicator in the way people looked or talked, or in the content of what they had to say, the subjects nonetheless made good and reliable assessments. These were based on little more than the other’s body language, tone of voice and the way they presented themselves.

The temptation to make soul mates of those most similar to ourselves is thus as pronounced in the office environment as it is outside work. “People tend to cleave like for like,” confirms Averil Leimon, director of Plus Consulting. “They tend to cling to or appoint people who seem like them – and they don’t make the same effort with others. There are a lot of people around who are really quite fixed.”

There have been some hilarious instances of this copycat phenomenon at play in the corporate environment. In the 1980s computer industry, for example, it was always easy to spot a rising Amstrad executive by the extent to which he (invariably) had mastered the uniquely grizzled look of founder and chairman Alan Sugar.

But, as Leimon warns, signing up to the person who appears to measure up most to your idea of yourself can hinder really productive workplace relationships. “Sometimes the person you might choose as a friend isn’t the best value – they might not be best for your professional health. They’ll love you to bits, but if a soul mate is just going to be someone who blends with you, they might not challenge you properly. You might actually need someone who’s a prickle under the skin.

All of which begs the question, do we actually need soul mates at work – or might they end up detracting more than they add in terms of career progression? It’s a conundrum that is particularly pertinent to HR professionals – because any department that majors on selecting and policing people is, by definition, more likely to stand out in isolation from the rest of the organisation. HR management can be a lonely old process, and is thus surely improved by the addition of an understanding and empathetic co-pilot?

In fact, says Colin Selby, the extent to which individuals need this kind of back-up at work varies quite widely – and will often depend upon how much emotional investment they habitually consign to the workplace. “The type of person who goes native in an organisation, who invests a lot of their identity in their work activity (and then goes home to bore their partner about it), is also the type most likely to seek soul mates at work,” he claims.

Conversely, those who see work as something completely separate from other aspects of their lives – they work to live, rather than live to work – might find the idea of forging a series of close relationships difficult to handle. “Outsiders don’t tend to get involved with the kind of minutia that’s needed to maintain these relationships,” he says.

In fact, Selby believes that employers can learn a great deal about the likelihood of someone sticking with an organisation by the type of friendships they foster at work. The kind of person prepared to network widely and embark upon a series of close relationships with colleagues (a category one might define as “the serial soul mate”) is also the type most likely to commit to the organisation. “Extroverts are joiners, and joiners join networks.” The people most likely to quit, he claims, are those who venture no further than their initial contacts. So too much hugger-mugging in the confines of the HR department could be actively bad for the health of your career.

But for all their ostensible commitment to companies, serial soul mates can furnish some very real headaches for organisations, in terms of the intrigue and split loyalties they trail in their wake. Moreover, the dividing line between a work soul mate and a soul mate per se (which might imply some kind of romantic attachment, at least on one side) can easily blur, leading to all sorts of unforeseen difficulties. Thus, although the pros of such relationships – in terms of their ability diffuse stress and provide mutual support – are clear-cut, so too are the cons.

The first of these is the tendency of close relationships to alienate those not involved in them. “Others might see the arrangement as cliquey, and feel resentment as a result,” says Williams. But friendships of this type can also create all sorts of dilemmas for the participants themselves. “You might define a soul mate as someone who does not achieve anything at your expense,” she says. That’s all well and good, until one or other party is promoted and has to manage the other. “That manager might then feel unable to make the kind of tough decisions the new role requires.”

Similarly, friendships at work can often lead to split loyalties on issues such as confidentiality. “If one soul mate knows something that should be kept quiet it invariably leads to a betrayal of some kind,” she adds. “Either they betray their soul mate by not telling them, or they betray the organisation.”

But even more damaging from the individual point of view is the extent to which we can become reliant on these relationships to shape our self-esteem. “Some people may begin to believe they cannot succeed without the relationship,” says Williams. And this can pose real problems on either side, which can lead to the stifling of talent. “In a typical scenario both parties tend to resist change in the other – because it alters the status quo of the relationship,” says Selby.

“I think we all have a tendency to revert to playground anxieties: ‘you’re my best friend, aren’t you?'” concludes Leimon. “But in a sense this is quite immature behaviour. It might be wonderfully comfortable to have someone so likeminded working with you, but we really need to be more mature. In business we have to work at relationships. Often the least promising person is the one [who could ultimately prove the most useful]. We discount them because they don’t feel like a soul mate – but in the professional workplace we need all the allies we can get.”

Thus, although it is human psychology to yearn for all our needs to be encapsulated in one other body (how else does one explain monogamy?), “it’s wisdom and maturity to admit this doesn’t happen at work,” says Leimon. “Once I stop expecting people to be like me, then I can work with them.” In the professional world, at least, it seems a little promiscuity goes a long way.

Soul mates or just good friends?

The co-founders of, Jane Bilcock and Denise Lincoln, both boast impressive corporate pedigrees. Between them they have held down senior HR positions in blue chips as diverse as Grand Met, Xerox, Allied Domecq, Laura Ashley, SmithKline Beecham, Hallmark and Barclays Retail Financial Services. Having spent many years quietly checking the other out, they have now come together to brave the uncertainties of running an e-based virtual company. But are they really as compatible as they would like to think? Read on.

1. Describe your first meeting.

Bilcock: “I certainly knew Denise by reputation at Grand Met. She was a very fast riser – in a senior position at a young age – so I had a lot of respect. It was strange: both she and I always knew where the other had moved to, even though we had never met. When we did meet she was very friendly and very human, with a sparkling sense of humour which I related to. She was pragmatic and able to cut through the crap. Not many HR people are like that.”

Lincoln: “I heard about Jane several years before I met her – and I quite liked what I heard, so the name stuck. We eventually met when a mutual colleague organised a networking meeting. You know the people you just hit if off with immediately? She was funny and cheerful, and clearly had very good commercial knowledge.”

2. How alike are you in personal taste:

Bilcock: “We don’t have entirely similar tastes, but I think we’re good at guessing what the other would like. I would trust Denise’s judgement. She is more spontaneous and creative than I am – and more impetuous. She’s probably nicer. People keep thinking we’re sisters.

Lincoln: “We’re amazingly alike. We actually look alike: we’re both tall with long blonde hair – we’ve been accused of being sisters. We both own horses. We’re both irreverent about the HR process. Neither of us is particularly patient and we’re both quite aggressive about getting things done.

3. What is the most important thing you get out of your work?

Bilcock: “Achieving something tangible – running a real business rather than just being an advisory [organisation]. It’s about trying to make a difference in the way business is run. Cash is certainly not the main issue, if it were that I would have stuck in a corporate job. But neither of us wanted to carry on in corporate jobs for the second half of our careers. We inherently share the same values at work – we’ve never had to articulate them, they’re just there. We have demanding standards, but we have fun.”

Lincoln: “To earn a living, yes of course. But life’s too short not to enjoy it as much as you can. One advantage of us working together is that we can put certain values in place. We can choose whom we work with. The key is: do we like them? The main part of work is loving what you do.”

4. Which management thinker to you most admire?

Bilcock: “I certainly don’t admire many management thinkers. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but a lot of it is down to fashion and people repeating other people’s ideas. Michael Porter’s thinking is impressive because he’s so business-focused as opposed to thinking in HR terms only. I tend to respect people who come out with strong intellectual arguments rather than just philosophising about HR.”

Lincoln: “My choice would be David Tag [formerly HR director of Grand Met]. He isn’t a professional thinker, but I learnt a great deal from him about how to manage the people side of the business while still thinking commercially. His influence was such that if you worked in HR at Grand Met, you were known to be good. Headhunters would come in and actively seek us out. The book I most admire is The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck.

5. Describe your management style

Bilcock: “I’m bright. I can be quite incisive in terms of understanding issues quickly and applying pragmatic solutions. I don’t mince words – I can’t be bothered to sit around and waste time. The world is divided into two groups: those who want to play corporate tennis, batting the ball back and waiting to see what happens, and those that just want to make a decision and get on with it.”

Lincoln: “I would describe myself as very inclusive. I like to include people in decisions – I value their ability to challenge mine. I tend to recruit bright, able people with a sense of humour. I don’t suffer fools, but I’m better now than I was – I’m far less judgmental. When I started out I questioned my own judgement (which I think is typical in women). Then I became known at Grand Met as a very good judge of character, which pushed me too much the other way. Now I think I’ve found a balance.”

6. What is your Myers Briggs Indicator?

Bilcock: “ENTP(J). I’m an extrovert looking to the future rather than the present, thinking not feeling. I’m borderline on P&J: J likes everything in a box and P prefers not to. I’m one thing at work, and the other at home.”

Lincoln: “Oh God, I’ll have to think about that. I think it was INTJ. At any rate, it had ‘judgmental’ at the end of it, so I never liked it much.”

7. What is your goal for the company?

Bilcock: “To make the company a success. It was such a good idea, the products are so good and I think it’s incredible value for money. We’re targeting SMEs, but I think we’ll also have a lot to offer larger corporates.”

Lincoln: “To make this business the source of employment law and policy in the UK – to put it in the premier league, that’s what we’ll drive for. We are already getting fantastic reviews. One internet investor gave our site four stars out of five, better than CNN.”

8. What irritates you most about the other person?

Bilcock: “How long have you got? But genuinely, not much. We are different: she’ll think of a hundred different things to muse over while I’m thinking: ‘well let’s just get on with it’. It’s not an irritation so much as a healthy tension.

Lincoln: “Next to nothing. If I were to cite one thing, it’s that once she makes a decision, she sticks to it like a limpet. That’s great so long as you agree…But I think it’s true that people’s main strengths can also be their greatest weaknesses.”

9. What would you consider to be the best thing about your relationship?

Lincoln: “It’s a very easy relationship – we can be very direct with each other. I love that honesty. You don’t have to watch what you say the whole time. It’s great that we’re so like-minded conceptually – Jane just gets things, which means we can just get on with it. It’s so refreshing.

Bilcock: “This is going to sound really wussy, but it’s the fact that I really like her as well as respect her. We don’t socialise outside work, but I like her so much as a person. I’d go an awful long way for Denise Lincoln.”

10. What would cause you to terminate the relationship?

Bilcock: “If our lifestyle requirements changed. One of the nice things about working as a virtual business is that it enables us to have the kind of lifestyle that we both need. But if one of us went back into corporate life, that would change.

“The other reason would be if one of us did something ghastly. But I can’t see that happening. Business people do grow apart – as do friends. We might go our separate ways, but I don’t think it would be a problem because we would talk our way through it.”

Lincoln: “We’re worldly and we know people don’t always live up to expectation – but we have a very strong foundation of trust. You have to if you’re financially bound up with someone. So if there were a breach of that trust the relationship would end. What would constitute a breach of trust? Well, if the other person suddenly dumped on you – if you found, say, that she’d been critical of you without speaking to you first. The reason why it would be so hurtful is because I wouldn’t have been expecting it – because we do trust implicitly.”

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