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What's Love Got To Do With Business?

Promoting compassionate love is a powerful leadership strategy

Historically, men have dominated the business landscape and still do today for the most part. Not surprisingly, male-oriented ideas and priorities—particularly dispassionate logical, rational problem solving perspectives—have dominated organizations.  Conversely  compassionate love is generally perceived to be a female trait and perspective, and, if seen in men, is viewed as a “weakness.”

There has been a revolution in organizational behavior literature in the past three decades focusing on the importance of emotions for employee attitudes, interpersonal relations and work performance. However, this research has neglected the basic emotions of compassionate love ( feelings of affection, compassion, empathy, caring and tenderness for others.)

P.J. Frost, in a piece on compassion for the  Journal of Management Inquiry, argues “As organizational researchers, we tend to see organizations and their members with little other than a dispassionate eye and training that inclines us toward abstractions that no include consideration of the dignity and humanity of those in our lens. Our hearts, our compassion, are not engaged and we end up being outside of and missing the humanity, the ‘aliveness’ of organizational life.”

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Jacoba M. Lilius and her colleagues contend in their chapter of The Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, conclude that organizational models that assume human nature consists only of individual self-interests have been extremely limiting and new research points to the fundamental role of empathetic concern and compassion not only in social life but in the workplace.

A predominant dispassionate, logical approach that distances itself from compassionate love, develops reward systems and training and development methods and the cycle reinforces itself. You will rarely see management training programs or employee manuals that address principles of tolerance, selflessness, kindness and compassionate love. When unloving, dispassionate behavior is modeled by the leader, this sets the tone for the entire organization, and when replicated across many organizations, sets a norm for business. It’s not that dispassionate, coldly logical ways of running organizations have not met with success, because they and their leaders have. But what has been the cost in terms of relationships, employee morale and happiness?

In an article for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Emma Sepalla, director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, cites the growing incidence of workplace stress among employees. She argues that a new field of research suggests when organizations promote an “ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress, they may not only see a happier workplace, but also an upward bottom line.”

Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, writing in the Harvard Business Review Blogs, argues that organizations must develop a “culture of compassionate coaching.” This means not merely focusing coaching employees on their weaknesses, “and that creating a ‘culture of unconditional love’ binds the team together.

Tim Sanders, author of  the book, Love Is A Killer App, argues “those of us who use love as a point of differentiation in business will separate ourselves from our competitors just as world-class distance runners separate themselves from the rest of the pack.”

Sigel G. Barsade at the Wharton School of Business and Olivia A. O’Neill at the University of Pennsylvania published an article in Administration Quarterly in which they describe their longitudinal study of the culture of compassionate love in organizations. They found compassionate love positively relates to employee satisfaction and teamwork and negatively relates to employee absenteeism and emotional exhaustion.

Barsade and O’Neill speculate that the reason for this is because in Western culture, the assumption is that love “stops at the office door, and that work relationships are not deep enough to be called love.” The authors contend most organizational culture literature has largely neglected emotions and there is no organizational theory that incorporates behavioral norms, values and deep underlying assumptions about the content of emotions themselves and their impact on employees. Instead, a focus on cognitive constructions of job satisfaction and employee engagement has been the focus.

Leaders can recognize and act upon the importance of a culture of compassionate love among employees with an equal passion they have for stewarding the cognitive culture.

The work world is changing, particularly for young people. People are now seeking out more meaning in their work and in their lives. People, thanks to the internet and social media platforms, have both a voice and a stage to promote that voice.  Customers are increasingly becoming the focus of business rather than the producers of products and services. People are getting sick and tired of the greed, selfishness and lack of integrity of organizations and their leaders. People are expecting a change. A focus on compassionate love in the workplace could be a catalyst for that change.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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