A tiny young plant emerges from soil as the sun shines down

The Conversation that Started Everything

Chris Liu and I were deep in discussion. Chris was director of the Department of Enterprise Services, our state's central services agency, and I directed Lean Transformation Services for DES. As an agency we were pursuing a human-centered way of working that trusts employees to make things better for customers every day. We wanted every aspect of the organization to be coherent with that philosophy. This was a big undertaking, and we were committed to pursuing this.

Chris and I were preparing for a short talk, an introduction really, at the state's annual Lean Conference. We would be introducing two of our teams to share their inspiring stories to an audience of about three hundred. I was helping Chris nail down a clear focus for our introduction. 

"Chris," I asked finally, "what is the most important job of a leader?"

Without missing a beat, he replied, "To eliminate fear from the workplace." 

"That's it," I thought, stunned. "That sums up exactly what we've been trying to do these last few years at DES. That's why our teams have stories to share. Chris has been on a quest to fulfill this job as a leader and to show others how as well." 

We named the workshop session "Eliminate Fear."

But this one conversation with Chris raised more questions for me than it answered. Reflection and dialogue with others made it clear that eliminating fear to create safety is only half the story. What is it that increases to create safety? Some insisted it was courage. Others freedom. Still others said hope. All worthy ideas but they did not ring true for me. The thing I now believe that eliminates fear and creates safety at work?


That's right, love. 

Many psychologists sort human emotional experience into two primary categories, fear and love. All other emotions cascade from either fear or love. Understanding this helps us make more sense of and respond more effectively to any of the other emotions we either experience ourselves or encounter in others. An angry or violent child's emotions can be sourced back to fear. The limbic root of belonging or respect? Love. 

At the conference, we opened the workshop with Chris proclaiming that leaders must eliminate fear if they want to see results like our teams are getting. And then I brashly declared that increasing love will help eliminate fear. 

You could have heard a pin drop. Nervous laughter. Shuffling. Had I really just said the "L word" in a government sponsored Lean conference?

I reminded the audience that love is human. We all need to know we belong, that our contributions matter. We need to know that we are safe to step out and take risks to improve. When people feel loved at work, they can love their customers and respond to their needs with improvements to safety, cost, time, and quality. A more loving workplace creates the conditions for a Lean culture. 

And then...spontaneous applause from the audience! And later, comments in the halls and emails of thanks. People stopped me weeks later to discuss this idea of love at work. I was on to something important.

Since then I've sought to understand this outpouring of love for the idea of love at work. Trained as a social scientist, I decided to launch a qualitative research project to learn from people’s stories about the impacts of fear and of love at work. That research convinced me of the high cost of fear on people, teams, organizations, and ultimately those they serve, and the immense benefits of love in the workplace for everyone.

Today through A Human Workplace, you can participate in this ongoing research by sharing your stories or interviewing others about their stories.

And there are resources and support to help with a global shift in our workplace norms. There are blog posts and talks. There's work with leaders and teams. There's a global community forming with gatherings where we explore relevant topics and practice skills for being human at work.

And now there's you too. Welcome to the conversation.

I love that you are here. 

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