How to Create a Culture of Love at Work: 2 Myths & 4 Practices

By
Todd Hall
In
Leadership
Posted
January 25, 2015

You’ve probably been there at some point in your life—working in an environment where people treat each other rudely, betray trust, or exhibit indifference toward co-workers. A friend of mine who is a marketing executive described one of his bosses as a “screamer.” I’ve had clients who sought out therapy primarily because their work environment was causing so much stress. A manager I recently met with was struggling with how to handle a co-worker who repeatedly puts him down publicly in front of his peers. In a recent case study, when a nurse with a long tenure informed her supervisor that her mother-in-law had died, her supervisor responded by saying, “I have staff that handles this. I don’t want to deal with it" [1]. When the emotional culture you work in breathes hostility or detachment, you start to shut down, become emotionally depleted, and eventually burnout. Burnout—which is signaled by emotional exhaustion, and decreased engagement and productivity—is a huge problem in many industries, and it’s partly caused by an uncaring, unloving work environment. I'm talking about a workplace where there is no love. 

When there is no love in an organization, people lose a sense of fulfillment in their work, and their productivity suffers. It hurts the well-being of employees and the organization as a whole. 

Many people find it odd or misplaced to talk about love at work. That’s because our societal emphasis (obsession?) with romantic love has greatly narrowed our understanding of love. In our current culture, we’ve come to believe two myths about love at work:

MYTH #1:

Workplace relationships aren’t deep or close enough to be considered “loving."

MYTH #2:

Even if we could genuinely love co-workers, it’s totally irrelevant to organizational outcomes.

It turns out that we can and do love co-workers (in a non-romantic form of love) and love matters. It matters for every employee, and for every organization. If we tune into our experience, we know this to be true. And there is a growing chorus of research evidence, including a recent longitudinal study (by Sigal Barsade of the Wharton School and Olivia O’Neill of George Mason University). I’ll highlight that study below. 

Against Myth #1: Workplace relationships are too shallow for “love.” Love is broader than romantic love and it occurs among co-workers all the time. The seventeenth-century French philosopher François de La Rochefoucauld astutely said, “There is only one kind of love, but there are a thousand different versions” [2].  There is an essence (or core) to love, but it takes many different forms depending on the relationship, because love is relational, and responsive to the other. The core of love is seeking to promote the well-being of the other, and a connection with the other. This essence can take on thousands of forms depending on the type of relationship, the situation, and the needs of the other, as well as the needs of others to whom you have various levels of responsibility. One of those forms is romantic, but that’s a small fraction of the love we express during our lives. How to Show Love to a Co-Worker We love co-workers, for example, when we promote their well-being and an appropriate connection, such as:

  • Genuinely listening to them
  • Being emotionally present with them
  • Helping in practical ways such as taking one of their tasks when a child is sick
  • Expressing compassion in a time of need
  • Cooperating together on a task
  • Celebrating together over a job well done
  • Grieving together over the loss of a mutual colleague or a co-worker’s loved one
  • Giving mentoring that helps a co-worker become a better employee and a better person
  • Helping a colleague process a difficult or painful work situation

We spend a lot of time at work, and our workplace relationships matter. These experiences of love—or the lack of such experiences—impact our sense of competence and our very identity. And while they don’t happen often enough, they do happen every day in organizations all over the world. 

Against Myth #2: “Love is irrelevant to organizational outcomes.” In a recent study of the impact of love at work, Sigal Barsade and Olivia O’Neill found clear evidence of a culture of companionate love (defined as expressions of affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness) in the healthcare organization they studied [3]. Multiple ratings from employees, outside observers and family members consistently pointed to a high degree of love being expressed among employees and patients. Barsade and O'Neill also noted numerous examples of cultures of love in other industries, such as Southwest, Whole Foods Market, PepsiCo, and Zappos. Barsade and O’Neill found the following results in which indicators of companionate love in a given instance predicted positive organizational outcomes sixteen months later:

  • Companionate love positively predicted employee satisfaction and teamwork.
  • Companionate love was negatively related to absenteeism and emotional exhaustion (one aspect of burnout)
  • Employee trait positive affectivity (or the tendency to have a pleasant emotional engagement with one’s environment) moderated the influence of culture of companionate love, amplifying its positive influence for employees higher in trait PA.
  • Companionate love positively predicted patient outcomes: better patient mood, quality of life, satisfaction, and fewer trips to ER.

In short, a culture in which co-workers love each other is good for employees, customers, and the organization as a whole. 

4 Ways to Create a Culture of Love at Work 

So what does all this mean for you? Whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor, love at work starts with you. And if you’re a manager, the tone you set by how you treat people has a huge impact on the culture. So here are four simple practices you can do today to love others at work. 

1. Be emotionally present with others. Give them your full attention. Put your phone down, don’t check emails or texts, look the person in the eyes, and give them 100% of your attention. In an age of constant distraction, presence is a key to love and connection. 

2. Listen to others. Especially when there is conflict or painful emotions, listening is a true gift of love. Genuine listening means you try to understand the other person’s perspective. That requires effort and setting aside your own agenda.

3. Express appreciation and gratitude to others. Show and express your appreciation and gratitude for your colleagues' work and for who they are. Every person brings something 100% unique to the work culture. Discover it and let them know that you are grateful for it.

4. Show compassion. Compassion has been defined as empathy in action. In his book, Social Intelligence, Daniel Goleman talks about the compassion triad: notice, feel, act. First, you have to notice people and what they’re going through. Then you can feel empathy for what they’re going through and do something to help. What if you and everyone in your workplace practiced these things every day at work? I think you’d be more fulfilled, productive, and effective. I hope you try these practices and let me know how it goes! 

For more insights on developing meaningful work and relationships, sign up here for my newsletter. As a welcome gift for joining, I invite you to take my free MCORE quiz, discover your #1 motivation, and elevate performance and meaning in your work and relationships.

NOTES [1]. Lilius, “The contours and consequences of compassion at work,” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29: 193-218.

[2]. Francois de La Rochefoucald, Reflections; Or, Sentences and Moral Maxims, trans. J.W. Willis Bund and J. Hain Friswell (New York: Scribner, Welford, 1871), 11.

[3]. Sigal G. Barsade and Olivia A. O'Neill, “What's Love Got to Do with It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate; Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in a Long-term Care Setting” Administrative Science Quarterly 2014 59: 551 originally published online 29 May 2014, DOI: 10.1177/0001839214538636. Click here for an online version.