Love Will Keep Us Together, Even at the Office

Hugging Zebras. By Nicole Doherty
Hugging Zebras. Photo courtesy of Nicole Doherty.

Sexual dynamics in the workplace can be troublesome even when they turn out well, and the worst-case scenarios can be a disaster.  Yet, if you think about your experience and look at the stories in the news about workplace sexual harassment, there is a recurring theme that harassment displays a lack of love.  We live in a pivotal era when harassment is rightly being called-out on a mass scale. At the same time, emerging research indicates that workplaces with love are higher functioning.  What shall we do?

This is a longer post than usual because the well of love is deep.

One of the main studies is aptly named “What’s Love Got To Do with It? The Influence of a Culture of Companionate Love in the Long-term Care Setting” by Sigal G. Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill, Administrative Science Quarterly, May 29, 2014.

Barsade & O’Neill conducted research on the work environment in long-term care facilities.  Their research is summarized in a Harvard Business Review article, concluding that:

“Employees who felt they worked in a loving, caring culture reported higher levels of satisfaction and teamwork.  They showed up to work more often.  …this type of culture related directly to client outcomes, including improved patient mood, quality of life, satisfaction, and fewer trips to the ER.”

For those skeptical that long-term care facilities are too focused on care to embody a larger workforce trend, these findings were repeated in a follow-up study of seven different industries.

Barsade & O’Neill make a distinction when describing companionate love, which is “…based on warmth, affection, and connection rather than passion…”

In analytics, data definitions are extremely important because people can apply a word to multiple meanings, causing errors before they run the numbers.

The School of Life has a four-minute YouTube video asserting that “love” is a troublesome word which creates confusion and unrealistic expectations.

The video notes that the ancient Greeks used three different words with better meaning: eros is passionate love, philia is a warmer and more-loyal type of friendship, and agape is a charitable love that we feel for those who have acted badly, are in pain, or whose faults and weaknesses are endearing.  I interpret that companionate love it is a blend of philia and agape.

In a Harvard Business Review article from 2016, Duncan Coombe discusses people’s tendency to use euphemisms to avoid saying the word love.  “You might prefer to use words like compassion, respect, or kindness.  That’s okay.  They all speak to the core idea, which is intentionally expressing concern and care for the well-being of another.” (emphasis added)

A lot of business leaders are nervous about love being connected to lust.  Barsade & O’Neill tell an interesting story:

“…we talked with employees at a large aerospace defense contractor who told us about a newly acquired division that had a strong culture of love.  Employees there routinely greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. Visiting executives from the parent company were alarmed to see this gesture, finding it not only inappropriate but possibly an invitation to sexual harassment lawsuits. Although they initially tried to prohibit such displays of affection, ultimately they decided to allow the culture to flourish within the division…”

Reflecting on the different types of love, it is important to consider that passion and concern for others are two very different things.  Sexual harassment largely consists of advances made with little concern for the well-being of others.  One of the central problems with our sexual culture is that women are often perceived as objects devoid of perspective, opinions, and feelings.  The opposite of this would be a world in which men are sincerely curious about, and interested in, the perspectives and opinions of women in the workplace. 

Men are reading the news, reflecting on their past, and getting nervous about whether they are going to be accused of harassment.  But this is healthy, since they can’t feel nervous without cultivating a concern for the feelings of others.  It is not so much that our culture needs to be de-sexualized, rather that we should all be aspiring to greater concern for one another’s perspectives, emotional state, and general wellbeing.  As such, organizational love — a combination of philia and agape — complements a harassment-free workplace.

Andrew Rosen at jobacle.com has a humorous blog post, asserting that the co-worker crush is good for the office.  In brief, people work harder, dress better, communicate more clearly, and have more spring in their step getting out the door on Monday morning.  Mind you, this is a description of outward behaviours.  Entry-level attempts to create a harassment-free environment include prescriptions about how we ought to behave.  Don’t stare at a colleague’s cleavage, say firefighter not fireman, don’t ask people where they are from.  But you have to go deeper.

I once spent several years reading manuals on good manners.  I was raised by hippies and I needed to up my game.  It turns out that etiquette is the display of behaviours that adhere to certain rules.  By contrast, manners are good behaviours arising from a concern for the other person, with the goal to not cause harm or discomfort.

Looking closely at each prescribed behaviour, you learn that each of the correct behaviours are intended to prevent the social pain of others.  When you “get” manners, you do not get a high score for memorizing rules.  Instead, you learn to feel the other person’s feelings and choose your behaviour accordingly.  Once again, it comes back to love.

For example, I hold the door open for people all the time.  There’s a secure door in my workplace, and I feel the other’s person’s frustration about having to fumble for their key-card.  I put a small effort into relieving them of this frustration, not because of rules, but because I sincerely want them to be free of discomfort.  I think they know I feel this way, and that may be why I have never been asked me to stop opening the door for strong women.

Once you know yourself a little better, and get to know others as well, you also have a shot at influencing the collective wellbeing.  One of the books that Coombe referenced is Love Works (by Joel Manby) which veers into religion-based love.  I was starting to think this was taking me off-topic.  But then Coombe noted:

“I have previously suggested that love is indeed the underlying impulse behind corporate citizenship and sustainability. We believe that love is a much-needed antidote to many of the challenges facing our communities and planet.”

That is, if we reach into our hearts to find motivation to make a better world, we can’t help ourselves to live our values and apply our best efforts.  Coombe noted:

“…founder-led businesses, family businesses, and the military are where we have seen the most frequent references to (and comfort with) love. Why is this? Our understanding is that love requires high levels of personalization — it is the opposite of the detached corporate automaton.”

If you did a double-take when you saw references to the military having a lot of love, remember our more nuanced Greek definitions.  Philia is a warmer and more-loyal type of friendship, which includes the collective sense of brotherhood.  As Shakespeare described it in a speech in Henry V, “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”  Let’s love each other as a group, march forward into our best efforts, and share our victory or defeat, together.  This loving sense of sisterhood is also noticeable in the #metoo movement.

It’s not all unicorns and cupcakes.  Some people have had a difficult history with love.  Bringing up love in the workplace can make some people uncomfortable, and preaching to such people about love doesn’t work, according to Coombe.  This makes sense because you would only connect with them if you were considerate about where they were coming from.

Love is something you can give; it is not something you can ask for. But, if you add a little nuance, watch your manners, and give freely of your understanding and compassion, maybe a little love can make your workplace better.

2 thoughts on “Love Will Keep Us Together, Even at the Office

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