Love in the workplace

I recently went through a family crisis. It wasn’t about me directly, it involved one of my parents, so I expediently posted an update on Facebook without too many details, just to let my friends network know and not have to figure out who to tell and who not to tell. I felt okay about releasing the news this way to my Facebook group of friends, since I curate my connections on each of the social media platforms pretty carefully—Facebook is for those I have a personal connection to, even though many are from previous jobs.

What I got, when I posted this status update about my family crisis, was an outpouring of love and support and good wishes. It was extraordinary. The outreach didn’t just happen on Facebook—many people reached out to me via text and email, and some people who aren’t even on Facebook, they heard about the thing from other friends we have in common who ARE on Facebook.

It was beyond lovely and affirming. And let me be clear: while there was nothing that my friends could actually concretely do to make the situation better than it was – that was really for my family to take care of – it made a huge difference to have that wonderful network of friends light up and send love. It made me feel like the world is filled with good, caring people, and that with people like that in the world, I could get through anything.

Why do I mention this in a professionally-tinged blog post? Because so many of the people who reached out came from one particular job I held in the past. I haven’t worked at this organization for eight years. But during the decade I was there, I became part of a truly wonderful community of people, who were not just colleagues, but dear friends and mentors and advisers. And what amazes me is that this feeling of community and love and support seemingly has no expiration date—as I said, I haven’t worked there in years, and I am geographically distant, and I’ve had three other jobs since then.

Having gone through that type of work experience, and never found it in any of my prior to or subsequent jobs, I can only conclude that the key ingredient in that particular organization’s culture was love. A commitment to love one another, and help one another, as part of being a good colleague. And I wonder if all of the other companies and organizations out there, which struggle so mightily with shitty organizational cultures that get dismal ratings on employee surveys, year after year, I wonder if those other companies and organizations understand how to foster and nurture the right types of love in their staff—love for the mission of the organization, and, love and respect for each other.

Now. Before you think I’ve completely lost my sense of judgment and have gone all goopy-woopy on you, let me say this: I know perfectly well that there are some forms of love which are NOT appropriate in the workplace, along with other behaviors, ahem, and those should be governed and addressed by good HR policies and good lawyers. And I’m one of the most likely to sneer at poorly designed kumbayah/employee goodwill exercises (“It’s Hawaiian Shirt Friday! That should make up for your lousy working conditions!”) And no amount of engineering is going to make me love everyone I work with. That is not how the world works.

But there are forms of love that I think SHOULD be encouraged in the workplace, even though it may make some people itch to think about it or say that out loud. I have had bosses, male and female, who I have admired and respected so much, I would absolutely name one of the feelings I have for them as “love.” I have a constant need to not just perform very highly for an organization or a boss or a team I care about, but also to be loved by them – when someone has taken the time to go beyond praising the thing I did, e.g., “That was a wonderful thing you wrote,” or, “That was a great job of facilitating,” to say something personal like, “It is so fun to work with you,” or, “You make my work life so much better,” well, that just lights up my day. Seriously.

And, I’ve spent SO MUCH TIME with work colleagues, time that involves more than just doing the task at hand. Time when we share with each other about who we are, what we care about. Time when we laugh together, or share our most confidential feelings about how frustrated we are with X or Y at our jobs. With that level of time and investment in any situation, wouldn’t you want love to be a part of it? We all talk about how we want to be treated with respect and understanding in the workplace—yeah, of course we do—but after working at this one organization, I’m suggesting that we all want something more than the baseline of respect and understanding (although it sure as hell sucks when we don’t even get THAT). If you’ve figured out how to establish and maintain the norms around respectful and understanding behavior, then surely it’s possible for you to aspire to the higher level of existence—the workplace culture that is infused with love and caring.

So this is me, coming clean: I am admitting that love is an essential ingredient for me in the workplace and I suspect that many of you might feel the same way. And let me confess something else: I’m afraid that I may never find that amount of love in an organizational culture again. (Which may explain why I’m moonwalking backwards into consulting, after declaring that I was going to go out and get a full-time job.) I’m a teeny bit terrified that the experience I had at that one organization was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. (Many others who have left that organization have wondered the same thing.) I mean, in previous and subsequent jobs, I’ve found colleagues TO love, and felt their love in return, but I have never encountered another culture where love and support were embedded as part of the organizational DNA, and practiced and felt on a regular basis.

HOWEVER: If by chance there are people out there like me who are ready to admit that they value love in their organizational cultures and want to seek it out, let me at least try to identify what might be some consistent characteristics about this unicorn-like cultures:

  • THE CEO IS EVERYTHING. In my opinion, the President and the CEO is the most important person in the organization, not just by virtue of having the big-dog title and salary, but also because who she or he is and how they behave sets the tone for everything else in the organization. That person has to not only occupy the biggest job in the company, they’ve also got to be a human being in that role, and trust me, that’s the hardest thing in the world. And it mystifies me, why so many boards go for the person who’s qualified on paper when it comes to subject matter, but they don’t do a thorough evaluation of the person’s emotional intelligence and reputational capital among previous employees and colleagues. I love CEOs who are real, who will tell you honestly and directly how they feel about things, good or bad, and who will not just give you guidance and advice, but also give you love and support if you do well. I also love CEOs who are willing to make tough decisions and put in the hard work of repairing relationships for those who feel like they’ve “lost” with the decision’s outcome. And I love CEOs who will break bread with you—sit down for informal talks or interpersonal interactions and just shoot the shit.
  • NON-WORK TIME FOR EMPLOYEES HAS TO BE PRIORITIZED: At the magical unicorn organization where I worked, we had a cafeteria, because dining options in the area were limited. And the chief of staff—one of the best and loveliest men I’ve ever met, a true gentleman—politely decreed that whatever lunch table he was at, no one could talk about work. He felt that lunch was a time to get to know one another, and eat. I remember those lunch conversations to this day–I got so much parenting and marital advice there, I feel like I grew up and became a real person during those lunch table conversations.
  • KEEP YOUR WORK SHIT TIGHT: The only way that love can flourish in a workplace is if employees are not being driven crazy by other broken, dysfunctional things going on. In other words, if the heating system is broken because no one cares enough to fix the vent over my desk and I’m working in blasts of freezing-cold air, or if my boss puts no time or effort into my performance review and no one is holding him/her accountable for that, well, yeah, I’m much more likely to be a grumpy bear than not and SO IS EVERYONE ELSE. Organizations and companies that pay attention to: leadership and decision-making structures, infrastructure and systems, clear and sound policies and processes, hiring and rewarding good people, systems of feedback—those are the ones that succeed. Those are the ones where love can flourish.