Do I have to say "love"?

Using the word “love” about work is surprising and even shocking to most people.

When I use the “L” word when I speak or teach, it is what my colleague Darrell calls a mic drop moment.

“Love.” Boom!

Then silence. Dead silence. Perhaps followed by nervous laughter.

But that’s also where the really important exploration begins.

The word “love” creates a disruption. That disruption opens up space to reflect on how we experience the workplace and how we serve customers. The space gives us the chance to ask ourselves if we feel safe enough at work to tell the truth about our performance, point out problems, navigate change, welcome different voices and perspectives, suggest new solutions, express a desire to learn, try a new skill, or accept a challenging stretch assignment? In short do we feel safe enough to do the things that create value for customers and satisfaction for ourselves? Or not?

In the space created by the shock of the word love, I ask people to reflect on our shared human experiences with threats that create fear and with love that creates safety. Threat conditions that induce fear can take the form of indifference, rejection, harassment, belittling, uncertainty, betrayal, and isolation. Love can look like trust, belonging, care, respect, inclusion, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. We have common biological, neuro-physiological, and psychological fear responses to threats and safety responses to love.

When I interview people for my research, their stories of times when they felt afraid at work and times when they felt loved at work describe these responses. When I speak to people informally, literally everywhere I go, those stories do too. And a compelling body of research from esteemed social scientists sheds light on various aspects of performance in psychologically safe and fundamentally loving workplaces. These include Amy Edmondson’s ground-breaking work on psychological safety at Harvard, Emma Seppala’s inspiring work on compassion and happiness at Stanford, Kim Cameron’s work on positive organizational scholarship and generative organizations at the University of Michigan, Adam Grant’s work on generosity and helping at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Amy Cuddy’s work on prejudice, stereotyping, non-verbal behavior and performance under stress at Harvard.

The idea of more love and less fear at work cannot remain a concept. Love must be put in action, but people often wonder what that means? Basic principles for teams and leaders offer guidance. Teams can demonstrate value for each other, invest in building relationships, actively create trust and belonging, and work through challenges. Leaders can demonstrate respect, humility, integrity and intentionally create both physical and psychological safety.

But beyond these basics, we each face unique challenges that require us to make choices about putting either love in action or fear in action. We each must determine how we will handle the myriad situations we encounter. What will we do when facing a budget cut, poor employee performance, a conflict with a colleague, an overwhelming workload, a team member’s mistake, or a new hire coming on board at a very busy time? How will we put love in action in light of our organizational culture, our field, and our team? The specifics may look different for a buildings and grounds team, or a Finance team, or an HR team for example.

Ultimately using the word “love” is not what’s important. What is important is that we come to understand the necessity of decreasing fear and creating a positive, caring workplace where team members can thrive, and that we then intentionally act on that understanding each day.

As I work with organizations, teams and leadership groups, they face choices about “love,” both the word and the actions. It is my job to bring that choice to them. It is their job to pause and consider what they will do to love.

Organizations and teams choose the words that resonate for them. Sometimes that word is “love” and sometimes it is a synonym like care, trust, respect, belonging, inclusion, empathy, compassion, or forgiveness, but always it is more human.