Let’s talk about smell – how leaders can face this delicate challenge

If you want to be a good leader you have to learn how to talk about smell. But why? This post covers some recent work on coping with smell in leadership. Smell can have an enormous influence on behavior and performance at a workplace. No one can elude it. If smell violation occurs, it can lead to conflicts in teams which thereupon need to be appropriately dealt with by leaders. Furthermore, smell and the perception of it, as well as its cognitive processing, are very individual. That is why organizations often lack regulations in these matters.

In a representative survey of GfK (Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung) more than half of the participants state that they do not dare address body scent in general or body-odor with their colleagues. On the other hand, two thirds of the respondents say that they would want their colleagues to inform them concerning these matters. Therefore it is inevitable for leaders to acquire the competence of how to adequately bring up the topic – even in front of Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, known for his sweaty performance. Thus, it is not longer surprising that body odor is also a hot topic in leadership trainings.

This research project, conducted by Beniamino Aloise, explores how body scent and odor are handled in organizations, leadership situations and leadership trainings, in which the issue of giving feedback is broached. The research follows a qualitative design. It includes participant observation of leadership trainings as well as narrative interviews with selected individuals about their experiences. The goal of this study is to identify and understand leadership situations in which body scent and odor are the issue and to develop an empirically grounded typology of communicative strategies targeting the challenge of body odor. The results will be submitted in part fulfillment of the degree of the Master in Business Administration at Bern University of Applied Sciences.

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