Workplace Culture: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Workplace Culture: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

I was stunned recently when a group of Books@Work participants zeroed in on love as a core theme in a story. The setting was powerful: a group of police officers, police academy cadets and city residents meeting in an urban day care center to discuss Langston Hughes’ story, “Thank you Ma’am.”

The story centers on Luella, a large woman and a “force to be reckoned with”, who overpowers a young boy when he tries to steal her handbag. She drags him home (literally), cleans him up, feeds him, listens to him and sends him home with an experience far greater than the one he bargained for!

In short, the participants said, she showed him love. Tough love. “We have co-opted love to mean only eros,” said one participant, “but love is the most powerful force. Love grabs us by the throat,” but upholds dignity and respect and allows us to retain our voices.

Robert Indiana_Love

Phil Roeder, Photo of Robert Indiana’s Love, University of Pennsylvania, [Public Domain] via Flickr

Love has a long and storied history – and it’s complex. The ancient Greeks had at least four distinct words for love: Philia (fraternal love), Storge (familial love), Eros (erotic love but also the love of beauty) and Agape (divine or compassionate love).

But love is not your typical workplace fare. Where organizational life has historically prized rationality and authority, love is personal, passionate and messy. And for most, love at work or in the community conjures office romances or the crucially important issue of gender imbalance, brought into bright daylight by the ongoing #metoo movement.

And yet a burgeoning body of academic and trade literature suggests that love (as defined by caring, psychological safety and compassion, among other attributes) plays an important role in the workplace. One approach suggests that we migrate from avoiding all talk of love at work to re-examining the ways in which love is already present in our workplace aspirations. By framing Eros as the self in relation to others, Philiaas trust and Agape as compassion, researcher Stefano Tasselli positions the various forms of love into new light.

Embracing each kind of love encourages organizations to re-examine how the characteristics that makes us human – like love – can positively affect organizational culture. Love boosts “the understanding of the unfolding processes by which human life constantly, and often unexpectedly, shapes organizations.” And at its most important, Tasselli writes, love “contributes to bringing the individual back into organizational research.”

Some workplaces are already on the love train.

Whole Foods Markets prides itself on a culture of love and caring, Southwest Airlines considers “luv” a critical motivator of its people, and Pepsico lists caring (for its customers and its people) as the first of its six guiding principles. And while few workplaces actually use the word “love,” many strive for qualities that embody love: trust, respect and belonging.

Langston Hughes’ Luella invited such a love-oriented discussion because she embodies all of these elements and more, leading with forgiveness and acceptance. We all want to work in an atmosphere where our colleagues have our backs, where we can safely express our views without judgment, where we can engage with others honestly and authentically, and where we truly feel a sense of belonging and inclusion.

A Books@Work participant and company leader recently shared his own reframing of love, and how love manifests itself among his team members.  “Because I love you, I will not allow you to use anything less than your best thinking,” he said. “That’s out of love, that’s not out of any other reason. It’s out of love [that] I want you to explore whether this is the right place for you to work. And that’s a real thing. It’s out of love that I can engage with you on whether you are in fact performing on the level that I know you’re capable of and you know you’re capable of.”

What’s love got to do with work? Everything.

Image: Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1483–1485, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.