Can Compassionate Love Become an Organization’s Operating System?

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Business organizations have been dominated by men for at least the last two centuries. Correspondingly, male oriented values and behavioral characteristics — competitive aggressiveness, unemotional problem solving, rationality and logic — have been the organizational drivers. In contrast, so called “soft skills,” — collaboration and cooperation, and compassionate love — have been generally perceived to be female traits and behaviors, and, viewed as “weaknesses.”

We’ve experienced revolutionary changes in organizational behavior literature in the past three decades which focus on the importance of emotions for employee attitudes, interpersonal relations and emotional intelligence. However, much of this research has neglected the basic emotions of compassionate love ( feelings of affection, compassion, empathy, caring and kindness for others).

P.J. Frost, in his article published in 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 don’t 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.”

Jacoba M. Lilius and her colleagues 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.”

Predominant dispassionate, logical behavior in organizations inevitably develops systems, HR practices and training and development methods that either isolate from or devalue compassionate love. You rarely encounter leadership training programs or employee manuals that focus on principles of tolerance, selflessness, kindness and compassionate love. Moreover, when purely transactional and dispassionate behavior is modeled by the leader, this can pervade the entire organization. Subsequently when it’s replicated across many organizations, it sets a norm for business. Yes, dispassionate, logical ways of running organizations have met with financial success, 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 Seppälä, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and the author of The Happiness Track , 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: How to Win Business and Influence Friends, 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.”

Companies such as Whole Foods and Southwest Airlines make explicit reference to love in written and verbal interactions with their employees. One of the popular and highly respected leadership textbooks The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner concludes that love is “the secret to life” and consider it the “best kept secret” of great leadership. Other leadership books by respected leaders John Hope Bryant, Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World, and Joel Manby, Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders, are advocates for compassionate love in the workplace.

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 to employee absenteeism and emotional exhaustion. Barsade and O’Neill speculate that in Western culture, there is an assumption that love “stops at the office door, and that work relationships are not deep enough to be called love.” The authors contend most leadership and organizational culture literature has largely neglected emotions. They also argue “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.”

Duncan Coombe, in his article in the Harvard Business Review, “Can You Really Power an Organization with Love?” argues: “If just about every person on the planet has at some point spoken about the centrality of love to well-being, why do we hear so little about it in the context of work? It seems we have collectively agreed that this universal ‘good’ is somehow not appropriate in the place where we spend the bulk of our waking hours.”

Coombe suggests several strategies for leaders to incorporate love into their organizations:

· “You don’t need to use the word love. Furthermore, you don’t even need to talk about it, and many of the executives we have spoken with don’t. They let their actions, policies, products, and services do this instead.

· Love is like an operating system. We have found it helpful to understand love in the business context to be something akin to a philosophy, a mindset, or an intention. This philosophy can have multiple expressions in action and behavior. While we are cautious to reduce love to a tech metaphor in our conversations with executives, it works well as it describes the absolute importance of the OS for integrated functioning.

· Love is not rainbows and butterflies. The expression of love at work can often be tough and challenging. Love is about being comfortable with conflict and difficult conversations.

· Love gets expressed from colleagues to suppliers to the planet. Love gets expressed at multiple levels of the business system. Sometimes we have heard about it being expressed towards a colleague, sometimes within teams, sometimes within a whole company through HR practices, and sometimes outside the organization, such as with relationships with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders.”

Summary:

The work world is changing, particularly for young people. People are now seeking out more meaning in their work and in their lives. Thanks to social media platforms, people have both a voice and a stage to promote that voice. Business is changing from the mere producers of products and services to servants of their customers. 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.

Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

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Written by

Executive Coach/Author/Professional Speaker. President, Ray Williams Associates

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