This Subconscious Strategy Influences How You Choose Your Work Friends

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When retail strategist Syama Meagher, then an employee in the e-commerce department of Barneys New York, applied for a promotion in 2007, she had her sights aimed high: Meagher hoped to move into store planning, which would have allowed her to manage a bigger portion of the business — but she knew that throwing her hat in the ring was a risk. “If you’re applying internally for a promotion, it can be emotionally vulnerable,” Meagher says. “You’re letting people know you want something.”

When she lost the promotion to an outside candidate, Meagher was distraught; like plenty of people who face a setback at work, she turned to her colleagues for support, especially leaning on the people she knew to be friendly and compassionate. It felt like an obvious choice, but a new study published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology reports that we don’t always seek out those traits in times of hardship.

Specifically, the study found that our gender may influence whom we choose to lean on when things get tough. While men tend to look for dominant-looking allies who may aid in future conflicts, women tend to look for people who seem like they could provide emotional support or empathy — what researchers call the “tend and befriend” strategy.

For the online study, researchers recruited 246 participants, 121 men and 125 women to complete two tasks. In the first, each participant had to imagine one of four scenarios: winning a physical fight, losing a physical fight, winning a contest for a promotion, and losing a contest for a promotion — all against a member of the same sex. Next, participants viewed 20 pairs of male and female faces, each with a “masculinized” and “feminized” version, and had to choose which they thought would be the better ally in that situation.

The results: After losing a physical fight, the men generally preferred masculine, dominant-looking allies, while the women preferred the more feminine-looking faces. The study noted that we associate feminine physical features, such a softer face shape and large eyes, with more prosocial traits like altruism and empathy, which may lead people to view those features as indicators of someone who can provide strong social support.

But that pattern changed along with the type of conflict in question — the researchers didn’t find the same preferences when analyzing men’s and women’s choice of allies following the competition for a promotion. In those situations, both men and women preferred feminine allies after imagining a contest for a promotion, regardless of whether they lost or won.

According to Christopher D. Watkins, one of the authors of the paper and a psychology lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, some past research suggests that “dominant individuals are less egalitarian or fair when it comes to sharing resources.” Along those lines, the paper notes that prosocial allies may be preferable during intense economic competition, where resources are scarce and the drawbacks of allying with a more dominant, less egalitarian person are more severe. But the study authors also acknowledged that their setup was a simulation, not a real conflict, and that additional work may be needed to fully understand how we choose our allies in the workplace.

Anecdotally, the pattern isn’t necessarily quite so cut-and-dried in real-life office scenarios. After losing out on her Barneys promotion, Meagher, who has since left to run her own consulting business, found that much of the support she received from her colleagues came from some of the most driven people in the office — those who might have fallen into the “dominant” category mentioned in the study. She believes it’s because these co-workers, themselves especially ambitious people, were able to relate to the pain of her particular situation — they understood her drive, and how such a setback could influence her career trajectory. “Those were the people who ended up becoming very successful in their future careers,” she says — meaning that in this case, dominance and empathy went hand in hand.