The Psychology of being led on in the work place


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I believe that I am a good supervisor. I also have been told repeatedly so by many of my past employees. I believe in mentoring my staff and try to lead with a bottom-up approach as opposed to top-down approach. Of course, at the end of the day, a democracy can only take one so far in the business world as decisions have to be made and someone has to take ownership of them. In particular, someone has to take ownership of decisions when they go awry.  I believe in taking ownership in those moments for there is no real use to throwing others under the bus. I have been thrown under the bus and it feels horrible to be betrayed and blindsided. Which is why I always tell my staff that I will always have their back but they are to never blindside me. That’s my one rule.  You know how Gibbs on the television show NCIS has like 100 rules. I just have that one.  Actually, I have a second rule. Don’t come to me with just problems try bringing in some solutions as well. Makes for a far more productive discussion than just a venting session. Two rules and I have your back, always. Because of my kindness and steadfast support, there are some that have come to misunderstand me and perhaps have come to feel “led on”.  Let me explain.


A week ago, a staff member that I have taken under my wings because no one else has, came into my office to explain her latest workplace heartache. She started the session by noting “I am sharing this with you since you are my friend…”


scooby doo

Unequivocally, I am not her friend. I meant to be there to support her. I am her boss, although not immediate. I am or, rather, can be a mentor. I am not a friend. A boss really can’t be a friend in the workplace.  It is wrong and can end up badly.  Someone inevitably feels wronged and slighted. Trust me on that.


Before moving on. Let’s define what it means to lead someone on. In the real-world, or dating world, leading someone on means to perhaps flirt with no inettnion of following through. In the urban dictionary it is defined as doing stuff with someone, without wanting a real relationship with them.  Leading someone on is pretending to offer them something that you have no intention of actually offering. Now this last definition can be the closest to what occasionally happens in the workplace (in a non sexual way). Specifically, it is when you offer good will towards a peer or staff member who then believe that will lead to a deeper workplace connection such as friendship that bleeds out of the workplace into the real world.  Being nice is at times the ultimate act of leading on employees in the workplace.  Want to know some of the other signs. They are somewhat similar to leading someone on at a bar.


Being too nice: Saying hello and just talking like humans can at times be leading an employee into thinking you will become fast friends. Some people expect to be treated as if they are a machine. When you don’t they come into your office and tell you how they talked to their mother about you.

Depending too much on them:  If you have an employee you continuously go to for projects you should be wary. That may be misinterpreted.

Being openly nice about it: If you are openly nice to certain staff in meetings that too may be misinterpreted.


When these normally human events occur in the workplace, there may be three types of employees that misinterpret the situation as being led on.

The insecure younger guy that comes to see you as his mom. He believes that your interest in him is that akin to being a family member and then feels betrayed when a point in time comes that he has to be reprimanded as an employee.

The insecure, lonely woman desperate for friends. She eventually comes to act as the “single white female” and wants your life. She will stalk you throughout the office even going to the bathroom at the same time.

The insecure, younger woman for whom this is her first job: She doesn’t understand workplace dynamics and believes that even with no other world experienced is as qualified as the boss. She comes to think you are BFFs and can’t fathom anything different.

One could argue that the lesson here is to not be nice.  But if you are like me you can’t help but be nice. Well, that is not always true. But just be mindful that being nice in the workplace may be hazardous to your sanity.



8 replies »

  1. Loved this. I have fallen into these pitfalls as both a supervisor and staff. As I have gotten older (and wiser) it is easier to spot these things but not so easy when younger and just trying to figure it all out. I am about to apply for a promotion that will put me in a supervisor position and this post was a great reminder!


  2. I remember all of these from working in the public service many years ago. Also from my work as a teacher after that – you cannot be friends with the students, mentor, leader, partner in learning, but not friend. Someone needs to call the shots and be responsible. I think I’m happier working for myself, much less stress.


  3. “being nice in the workplace may be hazardous to your sanity.” This sentiment can go both ways.
    I was led on by a younger boss who was nice to me for the first year and then a real asshole beginning in the second year I worked for him. I thought that he valued my opinion and experience until the day he chewed me out for commenting in a meeting and then turned around and told me to have a happy birthday. I prepared my complaint to HR and then drafted my resignation letter immediately after that incident!


  4. I have been on both sides.
    The boss who tries to be fair and diplomatic and ‘friendly/nice,’ (never worked for me 🙂 )
    and the employee who understands the role of employee/employer and misplaced emotions in the workplace (this one took YEARS to understand/portray/enact).
    I think I may have come to the conclusion that emotions and personal relationships have no place in the work environment and setting.
    But, I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kinda gal. I REALLY have trouble getting other people to understand ‘flexibility’ and ‘role’ so now I have, ‘Professional Lisa.’
    She is nice. She is cordial. She is courteous. But, she is not your friend.
    And, as long as you do your job, she will support and encourage you in a positive manner that enhances the productivity and morale of the business.
    Then I get to go home and be ‘friends’ with people who have the things in common with me that I don’t have to defend or worry will be used against me, later.
    I wish so badly that the two could be combined, but as many times as I’ve tried it, is as many times as I have been disappointed with the outcome.
    If you’re not dealing with a sociopath (I have learned my lessons well and do not toss that ‘label’ around lightly ;( ) this is great advice to identify potential problems and adjust your perspective of what is an acceptable work ‘friendship.’
    Great article, Psychologist Mimi! Thanks 🙂 (Maybe a poster of the 3 personality types to be wary of? 🙂 )


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