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Why Hollande's affair is more than a personal problem

The French president may bemoan the blurring of the boundary between public and private - but are the two really separate, asks Gloria Moss.

by Gloria Moss
Last Updated: 22 Jan 2014

As the world waits to hear which woman will accompany France’s president, François Hollande, to Washington in February – whether his new young mistress, actress Julie Gayet or his former mistress, journalist Valérie Trierweiler - we can ponder the ramifications for the rest of us. Yes, of course, his ménage à trois is the ultimate in reality TV, but the aspect of the affair which has most to teach us concerns the relationship of private to the public in organisational life.

Can the private be separated from the professional?  

Hollande may wish away the problem by stating at his New Year press conference that ‘personal life should be treated privately’ – but the circumstances make this impossible.

In his own case, he apparently used a trusted bodyguard, financed by the taxpayer, to transport him to his love trysts. In Trierweiler’s case, first lady status offered a page on the president’s website as well as a staff of five, at a monthly cost to the taxpayer of £16,400. In Gayet’s case, the fact that arts minister Aurelie Filipetti may have nominated her to the Villa Medici jury by in order to ‘please Hollande’ (so claims satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné), shows that the two spheres are intermeshed.

Is it productive to separate them?

Even if you could separate them, is this wise? According to Alison Maitland, co-author of Future Work:
‘Our professional and personal lives can't be divorced from each other and the best managers are those who appreciate their colleagues as human beings, not cogs in a machine’.

The reasons are clear: ‘If something's going badly in a person's private life, it's important for the team leader to be aware and offer support where necessary.’

Moreover, ‘understanding what people can best contribute at work can happen through knowing them as human beings, and showing an interest in real passions will repay itself too.’

Dr Ian Dodds, global head of organisation and development at ICI and now chief executive of Ian Dodds Diversity Consulting, adds a further factor: ‘People need to be authentic at work and hiding critical aspects of your personal life can take up unnecessary energy.’

Taking more soundings

How widespread are these views? I remember a conversation with a doctor from the Central Bank of Nigeria who, noticing a change in mood of a member of staff, organised an informal meeting over coffee.

‘Your problem is my problem’ he began, triggering revelations that she and her newly-wed husband, working at opposite ends of the country, had little opportunity to fulfil family pressure for offspring. The doctor discretely arranged well-timed assignments near her husband’s place of work and before long there was an announcement of impending motherhood.  She proved to be a valuable and devoted member of staff.

This may appear, to western managers, to push the personal to extremes, but allowing a respectful bridging of the personal and the professional is, judging by the currency of the term ‘work-life balance’, widely accepted. Of course, litigious environments such as the US may call for greater but the principle of ‘individualised consideration’ is an accepted part of ‘transformational’ leadership, a style credited with performance gains of 20% when compared with the more remote ‘transactional’ command-and-control style.

From bank to law firm

Even the environment of a top law firm, not the most touchy-feely of all environments, acknowledges the importance of the personal. At Allen and Overy, one of the five ‘Magic Circle’ law firms in the UK and top seven in the world, the senior partner, David Morley, manages an organisation of over 5,000 people based in 30 countries and even in the cut-and-thrust of corporate law, he acknowledges the importance of the personal:

‘An effective manager must be attuned to, but not pry into, personal issues affecting their people. Family circumstances, for example, will affect their ability to work abroad or even to work at all and awareness of such issues led us to introduce part-time equity partner status, something possibly unique in Magic Circle firms,’ he says.

Making some sort of allowance for personal problems, for a period of time at least, is further acknowledgement of the personal: ‘Someone known to be experiencing personal problems might be given more leeway at work for a period, although there comes a point where personal difficulties cannot excuse inadequate performance at work.’

New ways of working

The current prioritisation afforded to the personal is supplemented by a widespread view that work-based changes will make the separation of the personal and the professional difficult to sustain. As Alison Maitland says, ‘with growing numbers working remotely and in virtual teams, one of the key roles of managers is to build and maintain team cohesion by demonstrating that everyone is valued as individuals with a real contribution to make.’ 

Changes in attitudes are other factors to be reckoned with according to Davia Temin, president and chief executive of a New York-based organisation specialising in reputation management.

‘The fracturing of public trust in leaders in business and politics means personal behaviour cannot be allowed to fall below expectation in any sphere of life’.

The high standards implied here are echoed by Allen and Overy’s David Morley in stating that: ‘We would hold our partners to the highest standards of personal behaviour in a way we might not hold staff in less responsible positions’.

Then there is the ubiquity of social media and communications, which make concealment virtually impossible.

‘Little is guaranteed to be private anymore and employees' professional reputations and lives are porous’. Ominously, she suggests ‘the window of opportunity for segmenting public and private lives and behaviour is rapidly closing, if not already closed.’

People, not profits

Ultimately, looking at your workers as people, rather than machines, carries many of the advantages of a similar approach in medicine.

‘You are looking holistically’ says Temin, at the entire person with someone’s personal life speaking volumes about the person’s integrity, honour, respect for others, and law-abiding nature. Unethical behaviour there may make someone more prone to unethical behaviour in the professional sphere since they have shown that they can already rationalise a misdeed’.   

These thoughts mirror Adler’s notion of the ‘unity and self-consistency of the personality’ and Hollande’s protests that the public have no right to learn of his romantic escapades are convenient but wholly unrealistic.

- Gloria Moss is professor of management and marketing at Buckinghamshire New University and visiting professor at ESG, Paris, as well as the author of several books.

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