The Power of Love at Work

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  • Picture of Lorraine Flower FRSA
    Lorraine Flower FRSA
    Conscious Leader, Experienced Leadership Development/OD Consultant; Executive Coach; Facilitator
  • Future of Work
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  • Fellowship in Action
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‘A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination’. Nelson Mandela

The future of work clearly and rightly features increasingly on the broader leadership agenda with much of that centred on the role of technology. I wish I were more au fait with the full power that technology represents – I’m not against it just not from that generation that gets it instinctively and would wish to be more so given that my core purpose is about helping to create the new era of work.

Over decades of study, what I do know about the future of work though is that it needs to be based on the quality of love. Reverend Michael Curry in his impassioned sermon at the most recent of our Royal weddings argued that ‘if we can ever harness the energies of love’ then we will have discovered the equivalent of fire. Interesting to note that fire and love are the same qualities, both life giving and life enhancing as well as transformational.

And yet we are somewhat removed from harnessing the energies of love – especially in the workplace. In a recent client session we were using the word love (amongst some other powerful words) and it was the word love that came in for the most resistance and push back. So why is that? What is it about exploring the qualities of love in the workplace that makes us squeamish?

Overcoming the stigma of love needs us to examine love itself more deeply, to recognise the many forms of love that humans are capable of expressing. All too often we immediately connect the word love with romantic love perhaps recalling the feelings of vulnerability, intimacy, passion and joy. Or familial love where we are completely seen (warts and all) and where the profound sense of connection (often for our children) feels almost overwhelming. How would these play out in the workplace we may, unconsciously, be thinking.

The Greeks can help us here if we recall that they have a multitude of ways to define and relate to love including Pragma (long-standing love between couple), or Ludus (playful love often seen in flirting, or children or dancing). Their list goes on but one that is worth exploring in the context of the power of love at work is Agape – this is a love for everyone, a universal loving kindness that extends to a real connection with all living things.

Research conducted by Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill (Wharton and George Mason University respectively) entitled ‘What’s love got to do with it?’  looked at the influence of companionate love in the Long-term Care setting. Their initial survey - of over 185 employees, 108 patients and 50 family members over 18 months - explored the influence that a more emotional culture has on employees, patients and family outcomes. Unsurprisingly the study concluded that an ‘emotional culture’ is significant when it comes to improving well-being and performance.

They followed this initial study with a follow-up surveying 3,201 employees across seven different industries finding that ‘People who worked in a culture where they felt free to express affection, tenderness, caring, and compassion for one another - were more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organisation, and accountable for their performance.’

Some large, well-known organisations are already leading the pack in creating cultures of companionate love. Whole Foods Market has a set of management principles that begin with “Love” and PepsiCo lists “caring” as its first guiding principle on its website. Zappos also explicitly focuses on caring as part of its values: “We are more than a team though…we are a family. We watch out for each other, care for each other and go above and beyond for each other.”

Peter Drucker argues that ‘empathy’ is the new currency of success. So what is it that we are afraid of in the workplace?

Over decades, and indeed millennia, we have created the workplace with a very masculine definition of success and performance. Words like targets, outputs, efficiencies, plans, all have a very left brain, masculine energy feel to them. They are based on logic, mechanistic approaches and dispassionate behaviours. In the Roffey Park Research in 2016 on the lack of compassion (a core aspect of love) in the workplace they argued that a ‘lack of compassion at work could be due to the pressure for performance, productivity and efficiency which reduces the capacity to notice another person’s suffering’.

And yet we know some companies are pushing back on these established norms and ways of working. Bob Chapman, CEO of the $2.4bn US industrial firm Barry-Wehmiller, argues that building a better world through business to which he is committed, starts with building a better world for his people. He talks about ‘Truly Human Leadership’ which is what he has based the culture on for his 12,000 employees, all of whom are considered family members and treated on the basis that ’everybody matters’. He talks of ‘leadership from the heart not the wallet’.

What does committing ourselves to bringing love into the workplace demand of us? It demands that we:

Listen deeply – really create the space to be present with others. This quote from Thich Nhat Hanh sums this up well:  ‘Listening is a very deep practice… you have to empty yourself. You have to leave space in order to listen…especially to people we think are our enemies- the ones we believe are making our situation worse. When you have shown your capacity to listen and understand, the other person will begin to listen to you and you have a chance to tell him or her of your pain, and it's your turn to be healed. This is the practice of peace.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

Care and act kindly – if we say this quickly we might all think we are doing this already. And yet if we look more closely we can see that we get consumed with our own stuff, often going through life blindly, failing to make connection with others – a smile or some real eye contact. To connect with others we have to be less consumed with ourselves.

Connect head and heart – yes, the head is still important just in case anyone’s ’freaking out'. Of course it is but if we allow ourselves to get in touch with what our heart is telling us then we can start to bring the two together – be more fully present, act mindfully and heart-fully.

Opening to the heart is both extremely easy (consider how even the most hardened of us we feel when we see a new-born) and frustratingly hard. To live life consistently through the heart is a lifetimes work and yet what else is there?

Opening to love in the workplace is part of creating the future of work – let’s tap into our courage (heart quality) and make it happen.

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  • Lovely! I commend to you the wonderful work of Roger Harrison, who blew my mind in 1987 with 'Organisation, culture and quality; strategies for releasing love in the workplace', which took me into his Collected Works... It's a rich and courageous tradition. 

  • Ahh Lorraine. You are a true kindred! You might like to know we are going to start offering Love Cafes to RSA Fellows and friends. A space to explore love, compassion and empathy in their many forms and contexts. What helps? What gets in the way? What forms of love do we want and need more of?

    It's a project that began at the Southbank Festival of Love several years ago. Since then we have slowly been evolving the format to make it accessible in a range of ways.

    Let me know if you would like to attend or contribute. Planning for one in Brighton and one in London this year.

    Anyone interested in coming can email [email protected] and I will add you to the list. 

    If you are on Facebook, join here. Updates soon.

    Your article is a wonderful resource which I will now share in the Facebook group.