As the drive for efficiency and organisational survival increasingly squeezes out our humanity, most workplaces are increasingly difficult – some might say loveless – places to be.
In searching for ways to address this my recent research explores the role love could and should play and suggests we need to be bold in claiming love as a core competence for the workplace.
In my work on leadership and organisational development, and as a coach, I see a lot of pain and struggle. Burnout, anxiety, depression, stress and mental health issues are increasing as a result of the relentless drive for efficiency and constant organisational change.
I also see a lot of fear and people who are just about keeping a lid on things. Could it be that, in the words of the author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain James Bloodworth, ‘work for many people has gone from being a source of pride to a relentless and dehumanising assault on their dignity’?
Beyond work, we know that suicide rates are rising again, mental health problems are increasing and there’s a growth in self harm among young girls.
We are also facing a climate emergency and a fractured and unstable political situation. Fears about the rise of technology at work and what it means for our jobs and our identities are also very real. Sometimes it can feel that ‘lovelessness has become the order of the day’ (Hooks, 2000).
So it seems both timely and urgent to seek ways to counterbalance this. It could be time to make the bold claim that what might help here is love.
But what do we mean by that? Can we separate love from its connection with religion, romance and sex, and find new ways of seeing and talking about love so that it can be a robust and pragmatic source of support for all employees as we navigate tough times in our organisations and beyond?
Based on a pilot research study of 76 people into love (in Clayton, 2019) I found several themes worth exploring for HR and OD practitioners.
Love does matter in organisations
The majority (94%) of respondents felt that love at work was either very important (47%) or important (47%). They said that ‘humans work best in a loving environment – love is a core human need’ and that ‘if love is important in life, why wouldn’t it also be important in the workplace’.
Respondents said that with more love they could ‘shine more brightly’ and be ‘the best version of themselves’. It helped them to feel safe, which meant they could take more risks. Connections with other people would be much stronger and more open.
They also felt that we need love to help us ‘counterbalance the Victorian work approach of making money, the focus on processes and systems and the scientific underpinning of work that requires us to be emotionless’.
So there seems to be a clear recognition in the data that love is a core human need, and one that we should acknowledge when work has become increasingly focused on rationality, efficiency, productivity and competitive advantage.
Love is problematic
Yet despite seeing its value, 30% of respondents said they found love uncomfortable or very uncomfortable to talk about at work. Given the self-selecting nature of my respondents – they elected to take part in a survey about love – I would imagine that the number across a general organisational population would be much higher.
With love’s connotations of either romance or religion this might be understandable to some extent. But that’s not what people were uncomfortable with.
Instead they felt talking about love ‘would make [them] appear weak because generally love is perceived as weakness and weakness doesn’t belong in the workplace’. It felt ‘flaky and unprofessional’ and ‘too personal to be acceptable in the workplace’. People felt that ‘others would be dismissive’ and ‘the place for love is firmly at home and not work’.
Why might that be? Could it be that work is seen as a refuge from our complex and often messy personal lives? Is it that we have left our emotional selves at the door of work for so long that it feels too difficult to integrate them now?
For many people managing feelings has never been on the workplace syllabus, and perhaps we are fearful that we can’t do what’s now being asked of us; we didn’t sign up for it.
Or maybe we see policies that purport to make our working lives feel better for what they so often are: ways to make sure we are productive and efficient for the organisation. And so we are mistrustful.
Whatever it might be, it would seem that we know love matters and can clearly see how we and our organisations would benefit from it. But we have many blockers to first overcome to make the workplace a place of love.
How we define love…
In the research I intentionally didn’t offer a definition of love, preferring to build a picture from the responses.
When asked what was meant by love, ‘care’ was the word used most often by respondents.‘Listening’ came a close second, meaning the ability and willingness to put aside your own stuff to give someone undivided attention. This isn’t leadership as a performance art, but as genuine interest in others.
Then came ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’ – the ability to see something through someone else’s eyes and experiences. ‘Hyper empathy’ was one respondent’s definition.
There was also a theme of ‘setting high standards’ – holding ‘yourself accountable first’ and also having high expectations of others. This requires the courage to hold people to those standards, and having difficult conversations when necessary.
This is the part of love that says no, holds boundaries and is clear, direct and challenging. Finally there was a cluster of words or phrases that equated to really seeing and accepting people for who they are (warts and all).
All of these words chime with what most of us might expect to see in a definition of love. Although I might also argue that love is all of these but also something more. And the question still remains as to why we see so little of these attitudes and behaviours in our working lives.
From research to reality
If we are hardwired for love, and if it is so clearly a core human need, then it cannot be true that organisations are loveless. It can only be that we are not yet creating the conditions for love to be present.
So for those of us – whether in HR or leadership roles – who see the potential of love to develop healthy and regenerative cultures we need to:
- Consider the view that love is not something that happens by accident but rather is a conscious choice. Many (Fromm, 1957, Kahane, 2010) consider it to be an intentional disposition and act of will that becomes a conscious choice we need to make over and over again. If we are firmly committed to developing cultures that are deeply human then we need to be intentional and choose love as a core competence for everyone in our organisations. As Anderson (2019) says: ‘we cannot allow cultural codes to develop by accident’. So if we want loving cultures we need to work hard to create them.
- Look on every piece of work as an opportunity to build more loving ways of working. As well as considering how the piece of work will be effective also ask: Does this intervention feel loving? Where is the opportunity to build in more love here?
- Encourage conversations about love and take risks in using the word in your work. Talk with a colleague or your team. Explore to what extent should love be at the heart of the way we lead today. Or: what do you think about the idea of there being more love in our workplace? Run my survey (below) within your organisation to do a temperature check and assess readiness. Because if love really is taboo then it will stay taboo unless we start talking about it.
- If saying the word ‘love’ feels too much of a stretch for you or for your organisational culture then at least use the words compassion, kindness, empathy, acceptance, care, nurture. This may be sufficiently bold for your organisational culture. After all, in the spirit of being a ‘tempered radical’ (Meyerson, 2001) we need to work with a radical intention and yet in subtle and incremental ways.We need to be bold and risk-taking when we want to create change. And yet not be so different that our efforts are rejected.
Change creates disruption, which means that we often feel unsafe. When we feel unsafe we can feel fear – an emotional state that doesn’t allow for creativity and free expression, or for emotional connection and openness to others.
Yet that is exactly what we need in these disruptive times. Love helps us feel safe and creates the conditions for health and wellbeing, flourishing and growth.It might feel risky to take a stand for love. But how can we not?
This piece appeared in the January 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk
This essay is the winner of the 2019 Roffey Park and HR magazine academic research competition. To read the full award-winning research paper please visit www.roffeypark.com
Helena Clayton is a leadership and organisational development consultant and coach with more than 25 years of experience across various UK sectors