The Perils of Unchecked Power

Peacock Crop. By Steve Wilde =
Peacock Crop. Photo courtesy of Steve Wilde.

Hubris is a curse that causes great people to fail.  If you want to become exceptional, you must see this problem coming and protect yourself from its ravaging effects. And if you want to help others to be great, you must speak truth to power as an act of civic duty.

It comes by many names and appears in many fields.  For history buffs this would be Adolf Hitler’s “victory disease” when, after a string of victories, he recklessly chose to invade Russia.  It’s the tale of Oedipus Rex who accidentally destroys himself by arrogantly trying to out-smart the gods.  Shakespeare’s King Lear divides his realm based on flattery and ignores sincere emotions. The problem is timeless and cuts across cultures.  It’s an eternal human problem which remains unsolved.

So of course, now is the time for neuroscientists and journalists to see if they can figure it out.

In an article at the Atlantic.com from July 2017, Jerry Useem asks whether power causes brain damage.  The correct answer is, no it does not.  But it gets close.

Useem references the work of a neuroscientist named Sukhvinder Obhi from McMaster University who did research on neural pathways responsible for “mirroring.”  Mirroring is what happens when we observe the behaviour of others, such as the squeezing of a rubber ball.  Mirroring activates those parts of the brain that we would engage if we ourselves were squeezing a ball.  Obhi found that people with power had a low-functioning mirroring process. Those with less power were otherwise normal.

I’m moderately skeptical about this research because I think that people with personality disorders often self-select into positions of power. It might be that the context of power causes people to become unsympathetic. But it might also be that the unsympathetic are more likely to achieve power. We would need to disentangle multiple causes of the problem, and some research has attempted to look at just that.  The findings are mixed and contradictory.

In one of the studies advanced by Useem, the researchers attempt to identify a specific “hubris syndrome.”  That study is entitled “Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?  A Study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers Over the Last 100 Years.”  By David Owen and Jonathan Davidson.  Brain, Volume 132, May 2009, pp 1396-1406.

Owen and Davidson propose 14 clinical features that identify hubris syndrome.  However, their paper is mostly a circular exercise in categorization, as the clinical features that they identify have overlaps with narcissism and antisocial disorders.  The authors also spend significant time trying to differentiate between hubris syndrome from those behaviours attributable to fully-fledged mental illness or the effects of substance abuse (be it prescription drugs, alcohol, or performance-enhancing drugs).  Owen and Davidson struggled to come up with a clear diagnosis of hubris in leadership because most of the big fish were either bonkers or tanked.

In an October 2016 article in Harvard Business Review, Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley notes a variety of studies showing that power is a predictor of rude and law-breaking antics;

…whereas drivers of the least expensive vehicles… always ceded the right-of-way to pedestrians in a crosswalk, people driving luxury cars such as BMWs and Mercedes yielded only 54% of the time… Surveys of employees in 27 countries have revealed that wealthy individuals are more likely to say it’s acceptable to engage in unethical behavior, such as taking bribes or cheating on taxes. And recent research led by Danny Miller at HEC Montréal demonstrated that CEOs with MBAs are more likely than those without MBAs to engage in self-serving behavior that increases their personal compensation but causes their companies’ value to decline.

… Studies show that people in positions of corporate power are three times as likely as those at the lower rungs of the ladder to interrupt coworkers, multitask during meetings, raise their voices, and say insulting things at the office.

And we know from other research that uncivil workplace behaviour causes disengagement by employees and the customers who see it.

Keltner names a number of reliable remedies to the corrupting influences of power.  “The first step is developing greater self-awareness.”  The simple act of identifying that power makes you feel energized and omnipotent – and at risk of rash behaviour – goes a long way towards self-improvement.  Keltner argues that when we recognize these feelings “…we’re less likely to make irrational decisions inspired by them.”  The same goes for negative feelings of frustration, that phenomenon when people say “don’t you know who I am?”  The cutting retort is, “Do you yourself know who you are?”  It’s always a thought worth considering.

Kelter proposes a variety of practices that remedy hubris. Mindfulness, empathy, gratitude, and generosity are all big players, and he offers specific tactics. Formal efforts like listening closely, expressing concern, delegating responsibility, and sending thank-you notes are not just courtesies.  They are proper vehicles for unlocking the powers of empathy and positive psychology in the mind of the leader.

The most shrewd move a leader can make is to cultivate self-awareness and a concern for others.  It’s not so much that the minions adore this performance.  It’s that a leader needs to become this kind of person on the inside in order to be great.

But it only works if they care.  So, for the ambitious, your orders are to care.

And if you don’t have power, make them care.

“Working from Home” is a Just a Euphemism for Higher Productivity

Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com, courtesy of Sil Silv
“Watch high quality movies at ImovieSh.com.”  Photo courtesy of Sil Silv.

Mother’s Day weekend has passed, and the emotional roller-coaster has come and gone.  You may have spent time reflecting about what is important to you.  Are your many hours at work meaningful for your personal growth and the home life you desire?  Thankfully, there is a mixed blessing available for those who want better trade-offs: the option to work from home.

There is a lively debate about the virtues of working from home, and we all know why it’s controversial.  You have the freedom to alternate between hard work and lazy selfishness in a manner that makes you feel guilty and sheepish.  Am I the only one who washes bedsheets while I’m trying to figure out how to solve a work puzzle?  I feel bad about the housework, but I forget to take credit that my brain is fully engaged in work.

The Case For Working From Home

The case in favour of working from home comes from a study that was summarized nicely in an article by Bill Murphy Jr. at Inc.com.  Murphy reviewed a study of call centre employees in China who participated in a 9-month pilot.  The employer randomly-selected one half of the pilot group to work from home while the others came into the office.  Call centres have great tracking systems to measure productivity, so they were able to analyze the impact.

The gains were many.  Employees who worked from home saved the company $2,000 per year in office space.  They put 9% more time into productive work hours.  They were 14% more efficient with their time, taking fewer breaks and less sick time.  Their turnover was 50% lower.

Their mothers would be proud.

The Case Against Working From Home

Of course, working from home is not always the best way to collaborate.  Over at the Atlantic, Jerry Useem advances evidence that working face-to-face is better for collaboration.  He cites research by Judith Olson of UC Irvine who worked on an experiment with Ford in the late 1990s that put software developers in a war room.  It was called “radical colocation.”  The close-proximity teams completed their work in one third of the time relative to other groups.  In another study, a simulated cockpit crew in a crammed space were able to able to communicate a major issue in 24 seconds through hand motions and non-verbal utterances.  Face-time and direct communication can be critical for efficient teamwork and collaboration.

The Best Decisions are Sensitive to Context

What is notable is that the evidence twists and turns depending on context.  Call centres are all about the dynamic the employee and customer, so collaborations with work peers might be unimportant.  By contrast, work that is built around face-to-face communication demands proximity.  This would not be the first time that the research on optimal workforce practices concludes that it depends on the context of the business and the mindset of the individual employee.

That research Murphy cited was a paper entitled “Does Working from Home Work?  Evidence from a Chinese Experiment”, by Nicholas Bloom et al, a working paper from the NBER from March 2013.  I gave it a closer read, and there was a lot of nuance not picked up by the business press.

For example, commuting distance had a big impact on productivity differences.  Those whose commute time was more than two hours per day saw dramatic improvements in their productivity when working from home.  This finding is consistent with a theory in labour economics called the labour-leisure model, that suggests people start with an endowment of weekly hours and make trade-offs between their personal life and work life.  Commuting subtracts from the hours-endowment, and if you give those people the option to work from home, they will apply more hours to their work and also to themselves.  The interests of work and home are not always a dichotomy, as both are sabotaged by commuting.

During the experiment, people had been assigned to work from home on a randomized basis.  When employees were given the opportunity to choose, half of them chose to come to the office instead.  They were mostly concerned they would be passed over from promotion.  Employees working from home were 50% less likely to receive a performance-based promotion, which is outrageous when you consider they were more productive.  They were “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”  I see a side-story about the social contract.  The employer figured out how to spend less money on office space and stop promoting their most productive people, and the employees said “no thanks” and started showing up at the office again.

About 10% of the people who had not volunteered for the experiment chose to work from home after the pilot was opened-up for wider participation.  Once it became increasingly obvious who would benefit and who would be disadvantaged, several people still chose working from home.  This highlights the immense impact of giving people autonomy over how their work lives should be organized.  Any two people can make decisions that go in opposite directions, based on their unique preferences.

May of the employees who chose to return to the office after the experiment rightly perceived that they were less productive when working from home.  When those employees started working in the office again, this self-selection had a contrast-effect on the more-productive workers who continued to work from home.  During the experiment home-workers were 14% more productive, but once self-selection was permitted home workers were 25% more productive.  The impact was almost doubled.

Human Nature Out-Ranks The Logistics

I think it’s important to flag that autonomy itself had a positive impact that was about as important as a comprehensive workplace redesign.  That is, executive decision-making struggles to prove its worth against the impact of a positive workplace culture where people can self-select into higher productivity.

One of the main drivers for increased productivity was that people working from home worked when they were slightly ill.  I have to confess, I have done this myself.  Partially-sick work-from-home days are win-win for employee and employer.  This practice reduces office contagion, gets a mostly productive work-day from the employee who might otherwise be doing nothing, and gives the employee some control over their guilt and workload.

When sick, people need the comforts of home to get well and stay well.  Maybe a family member will bring them a nice bowl of chicken soup that gives them a sense that all is right in the world.

But there’s a catch.  Young people who live with their parents don’t want to work from home.  When people were free to choose, these young people came to the office in order to escape their family.  Thanks for the soup, mom, I love you dearly.  But would you please stop telling me how to format my presentations, deal with the workplace bully, and get along with my colleagues?  I need to choose my own life.

Shift in Job Market Doesn’t Need to Be a Nightmare

Melbourne Zombie Shuffle 162, by Fernando de Sousa
Melbourne Zombie Shuffle 162.  Photo courtesy of Fernando de Sousa.

Are you a little scared of the future? I think we all are. And for good reason.

There’s so much to think about these days, especially with technology disrupting our jobs. But if you have watched a few horror films, you’ll notice things become far less scary when you understand what’s really going on.  For me, my shoulders relaxed a little and I reached for popcorn again after I read a report from the World Economic Forum about job transitions.

The report reveals next-job opportunities for employees displaced by economic and technological disruption.

The U.S. labour market will see a structural job loss of 1.4 million jobs over the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. However, the report also cites a structural growth of 12.4 million new jobs.  On average the job market will be better.

However, let’s set aside the average for a moment and focus on the 1.4 million individuals who will be put out of work.

The report analyzed at a thousand job descriptions representing the majority of the American workforce and looked for similarities in skills, abilities, qualifications, and the work itself.  The job-matching methodology was created by Burning Glass Technologies, a firm specializing in labour market analytics harnessing big data and artificial intelligence.

Using the 10-year labour market forecast, they identified the job families where the largest number of jobs would disappear, identified other job families forecast for growth, and mapped-out how people could transition from lost jobs into new jobs.

Production and Office & Administration jobs are projected to be the hardest hit. In every other area there are fewer job losses expected, and the new-but-different jobs created within a job family greatly exceeds jobs lost.

Jobs in Production (which includes the beleaguered manufacturing sector) have a high similarity to emerging jobs in Construction and Extraction; Installation, Maintenance and Repair; and Transportation.  Positions in Office & Administration have a high similarity to emerging jobs in Business and Financial Operations.  And a large number of handy and hard-working people can always find a job in custodial or food services.

But if you lost your job, would you want to be a barista?

The Desirability of Job Transitions

Thankfully, the report considers whether peoples’ next jobs are desirable.  A significant drop in pay won’t motivate employees to seek reskilling.  Stability is also a top concern.  The investment in re-skilling or moving costs can be expensive, so some transition opportunities might be rejected just because of the instability.

Desirability isn’t all in the mind of the employee. Governments want a successful transition to achieve a good return on their investment in training programs. They don’t want to undermine their tax base with a low-wage workforce. And some governments are also concerned about the experience of workers as voters.  Employers need successful transitions too, as they fear of a workforce of demoralized, dissatisfied, and under-productive employees.

The report factored-in all these concerns and categorized viable job transitions as those that have high similarity, stable long-term prospects, and wages that are equal or better than the previous job.

They found plenty of opportunities:

 “…our analysis is able to find ‘good-fit’ job transitions for the vast majority of workers currently holding jobs experiencing technological disruption — 96%, or nearly 1.4 million individuals…  Interestingly, the majority of ‘good-fit’ job transition options — 70% — will require the job mover to shift into …a new job family.”

Job Transition Pathways

One of the benefits of this sophisticated model was that the authors of the report were able to extend the career transitions from a one-time change into “a full chain of job transition pathways” covering three jobs.

For example, a secretary can downshift into becoming a concierge, then come out ahead as a recycling coordinator. Each new job has a solid 90% similarity score relative to the prior job, but the salary bounces from $36k to $31k to $50k.

There is a similar trade-off for the transition from cashier to barista to food service manager.  So yes, you might still want to become a barista.  Employees could come out further ahead if they could see these pathways and plan accordingly.

Job Transitions are Different for Women

There are mixed results based on the sex of the worker.  On the minus side for women, it is estimated that 57% of the disruption will affect women.  Women also have fewer job transitions options: “Without reskilling… professions that are predominantly female and at risk of disruption have only 12 job transition options while at-risk male-dominated professions have 22 options.”

But women also have a better chance at job transitions that result in increased wages.  Of those experiencing labour disruption 74% of women have a good match into higher-paying jobs while the equivalent number for men in 53%.

This difference may contribute to a “potential convergence in women and men’s wages,” but this impact would obviously need to be blended with those economic forces that don’t favour women.  By which I mean, most economic forces.

Men and women alike significantly benefit from reskilling efforts, resulting in a quadrupling of the new job options available.  With reskilling, opportunities for women jump from 12 job options to 49, and opportunities for men jump from 22 options to 80.

A Change in Societal Mindset is Required

The report recommends societal changes in order to make this all viable:

“…what will be required is nothing less than a societal mindset shift for people to become creative, curious, agile lifelong learners, comfortable with continuous change.” (Links added)

On the public policy side, there is an additional shift in mindset for corporations and government:  pick up the tab or everyone is toast.

The main item that would empower this change is a comprehensive re-skilling program funded at full scale.  Displaced workers need to take some responsibility and show some initiative. But nobody in their right mind is suggesting that the cost of all this should be borne by anyone other than business and government.

While the consequences of inaction are dire for individuals and society, the path forward is becoming better understood.  It’s that part in the scary movie where they can see the way out.  And for that reason, it’s not so scary any more, and might even be fun to watch.

Want the Ideal Job? Craft it Yourself

Photos from Rachel- Potter Class at Earthborn 2012. By Unskinny Boppy (2)
Photos from Rachel- Potter Class at Earthborn 2012. Courtesy of Unskinny Boppy.

There’s something strangely satisfying about a hobby where you do what you want for a few hours.  Wouldn’t it be great if your whole career was that satisfying?  Well, it’s possible, but you need to decide that your own job content the item you should craft.

There was an interesting conversation ignited in the New York Times “Workologist” section by Rob Walker.  In March the career advice column fielded a question from someone considering leaving their job several years before retirement because of excessive work-travel they found unpleasant.  Readers objected that there was not enough consideration given to whether the employee could just ask for less work travel.  In his follow-up column April 1, 2018, Walker broached the more sophisticated subject of job crafting.

Job crafting is the practice of employees identifying what parts of their job they do best and find fulfilling, then putting more of their time and effort into those activities.  Work that is difficult or unpleasant may be down-scaled, dropped, or given more support.  It is different from manager-initiated job design, as job crafting is initiated by the employee.

Significant work has been done in this area by Amy Wrzesniewski from Yale University.  Wrzesniewski and her peers have developed a formal methodology for job crafting, including an assessment of what change is desired, building-block visual tools, a before-and-after dichotomy, and a good dose of positive psychology.  You can buy a copy of the Job Crafting Exercise workbook for about US$35.

Why Job Crafting is a Good Idea

The methodology is displayed in a 2010 article in Harvard Business Review, in which the authors note:

“…employees (at all levels, in all kinds of occupations) who try job crafting often end up more engaged and satisfied with their work lives, achieve higher levels of performance in their organizations, and report greater personal resilience.”

Job crafting improves proactivity, innovativeness, adaptability, and emotional well-being.  Employers see this practice as a way of giving employees an opportunity to self-motivate and improve the likelihood they will stay.

The self-directed feature of this practice is key. Managers may have insufficient time or knowledge to figure out how to organize the work of their subordinates for the better. If employees are given the opportunity to self-manage in this way, it can allow the manager to achieve results without having to do all of the leg-work.

In a 2013 paper by Justin Berg, Jane Dutton, and Amy Wrzesniewski, Job Crafting and Meaningful Work, the authors describe job crafting as key to making work more meaningful.  The authors identify three main categories in which employees attempt to re-craft their jobs for better fit and meaningful work.  Those categories are the employee’s key motives, the leveraging of the employees’ strengths and talents, and the ability to pursue passions and topic-areas of deep interest to the employee.

What Will Your Manager Say?

It should go without saying – so let’s be blunt – that bottom-up efforts to change job content are contingent on good conversations between the employee and their manager.  There will be unpleasant work that everyone wants to avoid, and employees might self-select away from that work.  I once heard an astronaut describe how everyone on a space station is expected to take their turn emptying the toilet regardless of their rank. Because of how unpleasant the work was, it was a badge of honour that everyone took their turn, without complaining, for the benefit of the team.  This might be a bad example, however, because these employees get to be an astronaut.  You don’t hear them complaining about excessive work travel.

The Downside of Job Crafting

Because I have worked in both the labour movement and the compensation field, I know there is likely to be resistance to this practice. Let’s explore why.  To some extent organizational hierarchy is designed to keep people in their place so they will deliver the goods.  At least that’s the predominant opinion amongst management bullies and trade unionists alike, with the main disagreement being who should be in charge and how to divide the spoils.  Under that conceptual model it’s common for employees to assert they should be given less work, get promoted, and be paid more.  It’s just not feasible to say “yes” every time.

However, there is more than one model.  There is a time and a place for meaningful work, thoughtful job design, and power-sharing between employees and managers.  It is implicit that job crafting is only viable where it is possible for the employee to control the job content, and this autonomy itself may be one of the items the workplace needs to work on. In lieu of control systems and the maximization of effort, workplaces may instead pursue a mindset of growth, adaptation, and collaboration.  Indeed, those items underpin most efforts to improve workplace culture.

There are downsides to job crafting.  Yes, some requests for a change of job content run counter to the organization’s goals. Employees can also take-on more “fun” work than they expected; they get better work but just too much of it.  And for those seeking their true calling, it is possible that they will be exposed to features of their interest-area that they had previously been unaware of.  As in, be careful what you wish for, you might actually get it.

Many people want to see more of the world, wishing they could travel more.  Others like to get out to cocktail parties to strike up conversations with new people.  And if you don’t do it very often, being in lengthy meetings making important decisions can be a thrill.  But it’s also nice to get home, have deeper conversations with close friends and family, and put independent thought into simple things within your own control.

It’s a good idea to know what you want before you try to go out and get it.  You need to know yourself to be yourself, and sometimes you only figure that out by experimenting.  But if you’re lucky you will probably discover that the biggest treasure you can ever find is yourself.

Not Normal is Now Normal and More Productive

Day 42, Hannes. By A. David Holloway.jpg
Day 42, Hannes. Photo courtesy of A. David Holloway.

It’s the research you’ve all been waiting for: nobody is normal.  You might think I’m trying to reassure you that you’re normal-enough to be accepted, but no, that misses the point.  Everyone is unique and weird in their own way, and this is what allows everyone to function at their best as individuals.

The study is by Avram J. Holmes and Lauren M. Patrick, under the title “The Myth of Optimality in Clinical Neuroscience.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences.  Feb 20, 2018.

The authors were looking at the complex environmental circumstances under which mental illnesses develop.  There is an emerging effort to develop broad datasets that isolate what causes someone’s brain-function to diverge from the ideal mental state.  About that: there’s not a single ideal mental state.

“We challenge this concept… arguing that there is no universally optimal profile of brain functioning. The evolutionary forces that shape our species select for a staggering diversity of human behaviors.”

At Inc.com, Jessica Stillman notes that “…for all but the most obvious maladaptations, there is almost always a mix or good and bad results from any given variation.”

“Take anxiety, for instance. …science shows that anxiety is probably keeping you safer, pushing you to be better prepared in important areas of your life, and improving your memory, even if it often doesn’t feel good… Or look at risk taking. If you’re a little further on the fearless end of the spectrum, your chances of suffering some life-threatening mishap are likely higher, but so are your chances of starting a world-changing company. Our strengths and weaknesses are intimately tied together.”

This research confirms what has long been understood from folklore, the humanities, and the school of life: everyone is different and we need to honour and cherish these differences.

Now that there is data to back it up, can we assert this wisdom more boldly?  I think we can and should.  There are profound implications for emerging workplace issues such as equity and inclusion, work-life balance, wellbeing, and performance management.

Equity and Inclusion

The research brings depth to the thinking around equity and inclusion.  Looking at demographic traits is one window into the ways in which totally arbitrary types of people get ahead while others are left behind.  If we want everyone to be at their best, we must strive to open our definition of what “best” looks like, be it sex or race or personality profile.  If there is a “type” who is tapped or favoured because they fit the mold, we need to step back and consider if we are being drawn into a bias, be it conscious or unconscious.  We need to look beyond types, consider the individual, and brace ourselves for plenty of surprises about who’s going to rock it, and how.

Work-Life Balance

There are also implications for work-life balance.  As employees go through major life events there may be special moments when they are a perfect match to your workplace.  But their home lives are important, and personal lives beckon for time, attention, and commitments.

Striking the balance is key in supporting employees to show up in their best form and deliver their best strengths. That balance hinges on allowing everyone to be themselves both at work and at home. Sometimes an employee’s workplace personality brings differences in what they can deliver.  And sometimes an employee chooses a home life that allows them to be their best.  Don’t make them choose between the two, they’re busy being themselves.

Wellbeing

With wellbeing efforts, every high-functioning workplace needs to evolve beyond claims-cost-reduction and mandatory anti-bullying courses.  If a workplace has developed a strategic and holistic sense of why they are advancing wellbeing, they are likely to happen upon the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health.  That definition emphasizes that to feel “well” people need to realize their potential, work productively, and make a contribution to their community, among other things.  How could that be possible if the corporate standards of performance disregard the unique ways in which each person is exceptional?

Performance Management and Competencies

This research raises questions about performance measurement against prescribed competencies.  Yes, employees need to deliver outputs at the right levels of quality, cost, and timeliness.  Yet the more specific we get about the kind of excellence expected, the narrower the opportunities for people to excel.

Competencies were originally put forward as a cutting-edge practice that blended skills and attitudes that employers wished people would deliver in their style of daily work.  Competencies allowed employers to get beyond people-as-machines applying skill and effort to the tasks specified in the job description.  But there is a flaw.  Top-down descriptions of desired competencies undermine the ability of individuals to define their unique strengths from the inside-out.

As people put themselves forward we need to accept them warts and all.

If people are to flourish, they need to be coached to identify their unique talents, develop their own learning objectives, and deliver work in a way that allows them to grow into their exceptionalities.  We need to recognize what is great about each person, anticipating that there may be a downside.  As people put themselves forward we need to accept them warts and all.  In order to develop people for their best growth we need a workplace culture of trust, sympathy, and encouragement.

By contrast, exercises where we score people against a half-dozen competencies sent down from corporate seem hopelessly archaic.  Allowing a privileged few to define themselves as excellent and encourage others to play along seems narcissistic and biased.  And telling others to achieve life-balance and wellbeing according to the standards of those with power reveals an antipathy for wisdom.

So spread the word: everyone needs to get their freak on.  If people can know themselves and be themselves, they’re far more likely to deliver the goods.

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.