A word not much heard in the workplace

Years ago (1987) Roger Harrison wrote a 'Focus Paper' published by the Association for Management Education and Development called 'Organisation Culture and Quality of Service: a strategy for releasing love in the workplace'. I read it when I'd just taken my first private sector job after a previous career in teaching and it made a big impression on me.

In part this was because I had a liking for Kahlil Gibran's piece on Work 'Work is love made visible … And all work is empty save when there is love' (which has helped me through some career choices).

I've still got my original copy of that Focus Paper and nearly 40 years later what Harrison said then rings true now. 'Business organisations are tough places to nurture tender feelings … much of the business world is unable to support movement beyond the values of action, competition and strength'.

In 2008 Harrison wrote a follow up paper which someone sent me at more or less the same time that I was sent a link to Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge's blog 'Is love an important ingredient for organisation development?'

Both are of the view that 'love' is not a word that goes down well in an organisation. But both believe that the qualities that define 'love' i.e. 'empathy' 'compassion', 'warmth', 'respect', and 'connectedness' – are exactly what organisations need to be generative, motivating, and engaging places to work.

I wonder why words like 'empathy' 'compassion', 'warmth', 'respect', and 'connectedness' have more currency than the word 'love'. Perhaps it is because individually they feel easier to act on? There are lots of programmes that claim to help you develop empathy, for example.

In our study group the other week we discussed both Harrison's and Cheung-Judge's papers. We had a collective feeling that more love in our workplace would be beneficial and then wondered how to generate it through our organisation design and development activity.

Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge offers a number of suggestions. Of hers we were attracted to:

  • Learn how to be fitter 'gelling agents' – doing more conveying, connecting, building alignment types of intervention. Learn how to grow the confidence and trust between units by evoking positive emotions they have for each other and be an explicit peacemaker.
  • Focus on key aspects of building culture that will engender trust, love, support, interconnectedness, interdependence, etc. in the core leadership development programmes – starting from entry induction, to first-line supervisor to middle management training.
  • Invent creative systemic experiential interventions to build not just competency, but a new mental model, new behaviour, new 'character' within the organisation.

Harrison too made some suggestions and of his we discussed 'what we can do as individuals' that will run alongside our OD & D work. One colleague noted that 'everything I've been involved in during the past 15 years or so has involved commoditisation, commercialisation, efficiency driven, initiatives driven through a mechanical metaphor, rather than an organic metaphor.'

The mechanical metaphor leads to targets, measures, and attitudes that lead to people feeling overworked and overwhelmed – a topic discussed by Mind Tools via interaction on Twitter last week. We want to develop the mindsets and actions that head towards the organic metaphor and the more human outcomes it generates.

From this discussion we came up with lots of subtle shifts and actions we will each/all take that might start to change the prevailing language and culture from a mechanical to an organic one in which people have a genuine concern for each other and choose 'to will the highest good' – a characteristic of love.

'Why is the measure of love loss?' Is the question that opens Jeanette Winterson's novel, Written on the Body. What do you think we lose by not recognising, fostering and speaking of love in the workplace? Let me know.