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Why love is your number one leadership strategy in the workplace

Explore the transformative power of love in the workplace and its impact on employee engagement, performance and wellbeing.

Every one of us shares the same deep psychological need to be seen, respected and valued. Matthew Lieberman, a social neuroscience researcher and professor of psychology at UCLA, suggests that our brains process the feeling of being isolated and alone as a survival threat, one that ranks alongside safety, shelter, sustenance and sex.

These impacts were realised in our collective experience of COVID, and have led many people to question the role of work in their lives and the structure in which this work is done. Might it be that the forced isolation of COVID and the increasingly obvious fragmentation of society in recent years have caused us to seek greater connection and intimacy in all areas of life—including work? Perhaps. But beyond work, the urgency of the climate crisis, the complexity of social problems, and ongoing disputes and wars around the globe are leading many of us to ask, ‘What really matters right now?’ And increasingly, people are coming to understand that the answer to that question is love.

Love Is…?

The english language, while overly complex in many ways, does a very poor job when it comes to describing one of the most powerful motivators of the human spirit: love. A simple four-letter word for a force that can inspire a whole spectrum of emotions: joy, passion, courage, rage, delight, despair and more.

The problem is we are uncomfortable using the word love at work for fear of being judged, misunderstood or perceived as weak. But whilst comfort with language is a barrier, it is the way love is gendered in workplaces that is most problematic.

Love in the Workplace

The world of work has been, and one could argue continues to be, defined and shaped by men, who traditionally have not, or were not ‘allowed’ by societal expectations and convention, to take on the role of carer.

One of the reasons for this is because, beginning in the 19th century, care, compassion and kindness were qualities that were viewed as ‘soft’ and emotional. Associated with femininity, they were seen as ‘women’s business’; care was considered instinctive and biological, rather than being seen as ‘work’ and so was marginalised in public and professional life. It’s understandable then that, as women entered the workforce, there was a natural reaction among those women to distance themselves from the ‘woman as carer’ narrative that had restricted them for so long, and instead assert their ‘masculine’ competence as fellow workers.

And so, with men not seeing care as a relevant workplace value and women wanting and needing to rewrite an historic rhetoric, care—in its sense as love at work—has had no real champion. Which is why there is a compelling need to de-gender love in the workplace by allowing and expanding what it means and how it is brought to life.

Loving Culture

Researchers have found that when leaders create an emotional culture of genuine care for their people—or what is called companionate love – workers’ levels of engagement, performance and wellbeing all improve significantly, especially during times of uncertainty. ‘The more leaders express care and compassion and appreciation and gratitude, the more productive workers are, the more engaged they are, the more they feel like they can manage their own wellbeing,’ explains Mandy O’Neil, an associate professor at the George Mason University School of Business.

So rather than get caught up in a battle of or over words, why not let your actions speak for you?

Here are four ways to do Love at Work, without it getting weird:

  1. View emotions as useful data rather than ‘unnecessary mess’. In doing so we harness the energy generated from positive emotions, build tolerance to get comfortably uncomfortable with negative emotions, and develop the emotional wisdom—for ourselves and with others —that struggle is normal, and that thriving and struggle can go hand in hand.
  1. As we experience struggle and see others do the same, show compassion by choosing generosity and curiosity over judgement, and by speaking and listening from the heart as well as the head. When we do this, we create psychological safety that enables us and our people to be more willing to learn from mistakes, both individually and collectively.
  2. Role-model and create opportunities for others to express and receive gratitude and appreciation. In doing so people feel that their contribution is seen, we create a sense of meaning and contribution, and support win-win outcomes for the team.
  3. Companionate love isn’t always easy. Caring means that we also expect our people to lean into their responsibilities, explicitly asking for commitment, inviting ownership, and fostering continual learning. By creating a culture of personal accountability and shared ownership, we support high performance.

Far from being soft, companionate love is a vital resource that every leader and team can draw on. Even just a small daily dose goes a long way in sustaining a team.

Dr Paige Williams is the author of The Leaders Ecosystem

drpaige.au

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