Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

A Gendered Emotional Display Perspective on Workplace Touch and Perceived Supervisor Support

Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

A Gendered Emotional Display Perspective on Workplace Touch and Perceived Supervisor Support

Article excerpt

Physically touching another individual is considered to be a particularly effective way of communicating various feelings and emotions (Hertenstein et al., 2006; Richmond and McCroskey, 2004). Humans use touch throughout their lives to convey what words may not be fully capable of expressing, and touch can also be used to "intensify the meaning of emotional displays" (Hertenstein et al., 2006: 70; Knapp and Hall, 2002). A warm hug from a dear friend in the office, a firm handshake after the deal is done, and a pat on the back from the supervisor are all examples of effective uses of positive touch that may occur in the workplace. Indeed, authors of various popular press books have suggested that managers may build better relationships with subordinates by using touch to communicate that they care and support the subordinate (e.g., The One Minute Manager, Blanchard and Johnson, 2003; Managing to Have Fun, Weinstein, 1996). However, taking an evidence-based management perspective (Rousseau, 2006; Rousseau and McCarthy, 2007), it may or may not be advisable for managers to attempt to use touch to enhance their interpersonal relationships with subordinates given the disconnect between these blanket statements and the lack of empirical research supporting this suggestion. Until there is a better understanding of the complexities of the use of touch in the workplace, managers who utilize touch as a way to express positive emotions may be putting themselves and their organizations at risk.

In general, very little is known about the potential for touch to build positive workplace relationships or how employees respond to tactile expressions of emotion by their supervisors. Certainly, there are reasons that research on interpersonal touch in the workplace is scant. First, researchers note the topic of touch is inherently difficult to study (Hall and Veccia, 1990). Much of the extant literature is observational in nature lending little insight into the meaning of touch (Hall and Veccia, 1990). The number of observational studies is not surprising, as studying naturally-occurring touch presents researchers with challenges. In particular, workplace touch is difficult to study because non-intimate parties are less inclined to engage in touching behavior (Major, 1981). Further, studying touch in a laboratory or experimental setting is problematic because it is likely to introduce methodological problems (Major, 1981). Second, the gendered nature of touch presents researchers with challenges, especially when it comes to touch in the workplace. There remains a fear of using touch in the workplace such that research examining the potential for using touch in a positive way at work is often considered to be taboo--even among social psychologists and organizational behavior scholars (Major, 1981). The lack of attention to the topic is understandable considering that inappropriate touch in the workplace is fraught with potential negative outcomes (e.g., miscommunication, reduced relationship quality, sexual and other harassment charges).

While research on how men and women use touch in the workplace is scarce, a great deal of research has highlighted the gendered nature of touch. Despite debate about the asymmetry in the use of touch by men and women (Hall and Veccia, 1990; Henley, 1973; Major, 1981; Stier and Hall, 1984), research consistently reveals that men and women often use touch and interpret touch differently (Fuller et al., 2011; Hall and Veccia, 1990; Henley, 1973, 1977; Hertenstein and Keltner, 2011; Martin and Anderson, 1993; Stier and Hall, 1984). For example, male/female dyads in Hall and Veccia's (1990) study demonstrated more "arm around" touch, while females tended to prefer "arms linked." Research on nonreciprocal touch also demonstrates that the initiator and recipient of touch may attach different meaning (Major and Heslin, 1982). Therefore, prior research indicates that gender is an important consideration when seeking a greater understanding of how managers might use touch effectively. …

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