All You Need is Love: How to Nurture Compassionate Love in the Workplace

Thank you, John Lennon. You offered leadership advice to all of us more than 50 years ago with these five simple words.  

The word “love” garners a range of reactions and finds its origin in any number of sources. The Greeks defined seven types of love ranging from self-love, to love of convenience, friendship or lust. We see love symbolized in a disturbingly muscular infant known to the Greeks as Eros and to the rest of us as Cupid. Hearts, roses and apple blossoms have also come to be seen as symbols of love over the years. 

We even use the word love in inconsistent ways. We love our partners, our children and our siblings. We also love tacos, puppies and sleeping late. Sincere? Probably. Inconsistent use of the word? Absolutely!   

Love in the workplace is even more confusing, until we give it a little thought. Consider the amount of time we spend with colleagues versus family, even when we work from home. The average full-time employee works 1,801 hours per year, or 37.5 hours per week, higher than any of the other 38 nation members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Big shocker that we form bonds with our “work spouses” or work families — terms that have gained popularity over the years. In fact, 56 percent of workers say they spend more time with their work family than their real family. Work spouses are often reported as being among one’s best friends.   

It’s no surprise that such workplace bonds would manifest themselves in terms of love. We know, for example, that we’re driven more by intrinsic motivators than extrinsic ones. Studies show that our need for efficacy exceeds our more primal desires for money and artificial gratification. Relationships, bonds, and trust fuel organizational duty and productivity. 

Still, we avoid the discussion of love in the workplace for many reasons, the most obvious of which is the misconception that love is the same thing as an intimate relationship. Office romances no doubt demand attention on the part of leadership but that’s not love in the way described here. Another reason that leaders eschew discussion of topics such as love is their dependence (and comfort) with more measurable, quantitative factors. Dashboards and numbers are simple and easy to digest and defend. A lack of love in the workplace? Not so much.    

Research has uncovered evidence of strong links between love in the workplace and employee wellness and engagement. One of the most impactful studies on love conclusively indicated that a culture marked by emotion and companionate love at work was directly related to worker satisfaction and teamwork. Further, these employees were less likely to miss work due to sickness or other factors. Follow-up studies revealed similar findings. There’s little doubt that love creates a sense of psychological well-being that benefits all. 

When attempting to make the move toward a more loving environment, leaders often make the mistake of resorting to a prefab approach. While this may work for building IKEA furniture, it falls far short when addressing the intensely human needs of the heart and soul. The leader arrives at the office and the prefab process begins. The leader stops at each cubicle with a forced “Good morning!” Check. “How are the kids?” Check. Nothing more than the obligatory. Relationships in this type of workplace tend to be contract-based, sterile and void of passion. 

Professionally, this type of patterned behavior feels comfortable. We maintain a secure sense of who we are and we solidify our perception and proficiency with the management skills we bring to the table. But by centering ourselves on only what we’re most comfortable with, and seeing only what’s visibly measurable, we’re blind to growth and bound to the status quo. It may feel good, but it’s a cop-out.  

If we want to nurture love in the workplace, it’s not that difficult. Ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. Am I comfortable exhibiting humility and vulnerability around those I lead? 
  2. Have I made a conscious choice to be intentional about creating an environment of compassion and caring?  
  3. Am I sensitive to what messages my emotions send to my team? 
  4. Does my leadership philosophy include the word “love?” How about my organization’s values or mission statement?  
  5. Do I use the word “love” in my daily interactions with those I lead? 

Love thrives in the simplest of moments, and leaders who take intentional steps to create environments of care, affection, tenderness, forgiveness and kindness can transform their workplaces into environments that benefit from the discretionary energy and passion of their employees. Listening, offering a few uninterrupted moments or remembering something unique about someone can send a powerful message of humanity, which translates directly into organizational performance.  

All you need is love. 

Zina Sutch

Zina Sutch

Zina Sutch has been leading development and diversity programs for the Federal government for 20 years, and currently serves in the Senior Executive Service. Patrick Malone spent 23 years in the Navy and served as an officer in the Medical Service Corps. Zina is a faculty member and Patrick is director of the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. Their new book is Leading with Love and Laughter: Letting Go and Getting Real at Work (BK Publishers, Inc., May 25, 2021). Learn more at sutchmalone.com.

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