Love and Lust in the 21st Century Office

Petraeus is the latest man to fall — in love and so from grace. But he is a non-exception that proves the new rules of the game. How long will we want to live in denial? It is not only in war that we face a brave new world. It is also in love — and work. And the ever-closer relationship between the two.

This, of course, is why many men muttered that they shouldn't let women into management, let alone on boards. It complicates things. Men can't seem to 'control' themselves. The long, sad litany of talented men forced to leave their jobs for love is starting to lengthen: Kubasik at Lockheed Martin, MacMillan at Stryker, Dunn at Best Buy. (All are different, I would suggest, than Dominique Strauss Kahn, Silvio Berlusconi, et al, who made lust and its abuse part of their brand).

There are many benefits to gender balance, as this column has long argued: better business results, higher performance, and workplaces that are more... stimulating. Proximity and similarity are potent predictors of love. And Petraeus is hardly unusual in falling for a smart, attractive woman whose personality and CV may be closer to his own than his youthful sweetheart's (and then-boss's daughter).

The only problem is that like so many other dimensions of this past century's revolution, we have not yet adapted our policies and mindsets. Despite a 50% divorce rate, we continue to demonize the (often messy) process that leads to it. Another consequence of gender balanced workforces is the number of marriages that are born from corporate graduate training programmes. Yet the issue of how companies manage dual career couples remain in its infancy. Managers are having a hard time moving from a mentality that fears nepotism to a mentality that welcomes and develops talented couples.

Despite the ever-extending length of lives, and the growth and change that individuals must pass through to flourish, we continue to apply fairy tale standards to the real work of crafting meaningful and nourishing relationships at home. The majority of Petraeus-like stories focus on the familiar plot line of adulterous men and wronged wives. But a different perspective might recast the tale as highly accomplished woman seeks match... and she is not alone.

As a raft of books have indicated, the excellent The Richer Sex among them, women are changing the rules at home and at work. Women's empowerment and enrichment comes with new choices. Three quarters of divorces are initiated by women. And as Terrence Real eloquently demonstrates in How Can I Get Through To You, most of this exodus is a search for men ready to meet them halfway. In Asia, The Economist reported, there is an epidemic of women not marrying because men won't adapt to their newfound roles. No wonder that women are reaching out to men across marriage lines. The majority of divorces in the UK are now initiated by women in their 50s and 60s, reaching for more than their existing relationships offer them.

As John Gapper wrote in the Financial Times, "it is no surprise that there are so many recent cases of executive infidelity — and these are just the ones that have been uncovered. It is unnatural to expect them to stop." Companies, he suggests, should focus their efforts on managing any "harmful side effects" as opposed to judging the existence of the relationships themselves.

When you combine gender balance at work, heightened expectations of personal relationships, and empowered women, companies had better be prepared to manage the consequences.

All is fair in love and war. Traditionally, men have been left to manage the latter, and women the former. Times have changed. From the bedroom to the boardroom to the war room, love is in the air... and it's here to stay.

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