The Profound Benefits of Love at Work

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: Our work life can be extremely stressful. We often blame ourselves.
The Science: Harsh workplaces damage our health and productivity. A loving one does the opposite!
The Solution: Love in the workplace? Sounds crazy! But data says it leads to health and success!

What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner made the question famously seductive. For many, it struck a truthful cord—in their personal lives at least. But recent research demonstrates the nostalgic phrase also extends into our work lives. In fact, if you have ever said “my boss is killing me”—and studies suggest that nine out of 10 employees have-—then you have been afflicted by the harrowing effects of workplace love.

Lack of Love is Literally Killing Employees

Most recently, Gallup’s research found that of the 70 percent of employees report not loving their job. The lion’s share claim a “boss from hell” for their discontent. Consider this: 65 percent of respondents said a better boss would make them happier; only 35 percent said a pay raise would do the same. To many, it probably comes as little surprise that a good boss can affect your happiness. But did you know that a good boss is a matter of life and death?

Swedish researchers  from the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Karolinska Institute  and the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University collected data for over 3,000 employees. They gave the workers a battery of medical tests and a lengthy questionnaire to rate their bosses.  They then amassed ten years of medical history on the subjects in order to assess the long-term effects their managers had on their health.

Over the 10-year period, the employees who described their bosses as inconsiderate, aloof, and withdrawn had a 25 percent increased risk of heart attack. This was after controlling for education, income, smoking, exercise, BMI (Body Mass Index), blood fats, and diabetes. Sadly, the longer an employee worked for a bad boss, the more likely the worker was to have a heart attack. If they had worked for that manager for four years or more, their risk increased by a whopping 60 percent. And for those employees who reported liking their bosses? Their hearts fared better than average.  They were 40 percent less likely to suffer heart attacks than the general population.

The study make for a compelling case on two fronts. First, if you don’t like your boss, you can deem it official: your boss just may—literally—be killing you.  Secondly, if you are a manager, or aspire to become one, you have an immense responsibility.

What Makes a Good Boss?

What truly separates the good managers from the not- so-good ones? The ability to nourish and protect the hearts of others.

When we think of matters of the heart, it is hard steer away from the word love.  Nonetheless, the word love, and emotions in general, have been noticeably absent from research on professional work for nearly 75 years.  Somewhere along the line, talking about love was deemed “unprofessional.” This is because love is largely referenced in romance and family matters. Barbara Fredrickson, leading positive emotion researcher and author of Love 2.0, suggests that for whatever definition of love you subscribe to – from parental to romantic or platonic, your heart subscribes to just one: Love is a micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another human being.  And, as it turns out, when workers are encouraged to express these small micro-moments of love, workplaces reap disproportionately large benefits.

Recent studies conducted by Sigal Barsade, professor of management at the Wharton School, and Mandy O’Neill, professor at George Mason University School of Management, demonstrate the compelling link between love and positive work outcomes. Their research found that people who worked in a culture where they felt free to express love were more satisfied with their jobs, more committed to the organization, and more accountable for their performance. They also displayed greater levels of teamwork and were less likely to suffer from burnout.

Lovable Leaders Do Better Than Tough Ones

For a soft and squishy word such as love, these are hard, evidence-based outcomes—outcomes that could sway many managers to raise a brow. Except for the entrenched fear that expressing love comes at an expense to one’s perceived competence. Social Psychologist and Harvard Business School Professor Amy J. C. Cuddy has researched this topic extensively.  Cuddy finds that while most leaders today tend to emphasize their strength, competence, and credentials in the workplace, this is the exact wrong approach. The reason is simple. When we decide whom to respect, trust and follow, we are not wooed by how strong they are (their skill, capability, or competence).  Rather, we look at how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness).

According to Cuddy, leaders who project strength before love actually drive others away. This is a result of our evolutionary neural wiring. Strength and power, in the absence of love, provoke fear. This, in turn, activates a fight-or -flight response.  With our basic feelings of safety compromised, a predictable human response ensues: we clam up and turn hyper-vigilant about protecting ourselves and our personal interests.  Remarkably, love activates the opposing neural circuitry, known as the calm-and-connect response.  The essence of love is that it makes us feel safe.  And, as recent findings from neuroscience have demonstrated, safety is a magical elixir to build greater levels of trust.

Chemistry – Not Just for Romance Anymore

The biochemistry of love has uncovered dramatic new evidence into the link between trust and a chemical called oxytocin, nicknamed by some the “love hormone.”  Over the past decade, oxytocin has been studied extensively by Paul Zak, professor of economics and the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Zak has conducted multiple laboratory studies showing that when someone’s level of oxytocin goes up, he or she becomes significantly more trusting of others. His most surprising finding is that these effects are bi-directional. In other words, when a person extends himself to another in a trusting way, the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin as well. The result is a fortuitous upward spiral of increasingly trustworthy behavior (not to mention increased well-being!).

In one of Zak’s most popular studies, synthetic oxytocin was sprayed into subjects’ nasal passages—a way to get the substance directly into their brains. Isolating the effects of oxytocin proved to yield much more than a mediocre rise in trusting behavior. Trust skyrocketed by a staggering 44 percent.  Given Zak’s research that trust begets even more trust, you can imagine the ripple effect that stems from this initial surge.  Imagine a workplace where the level of trust you have with a boss or co-workers nearly doubles by the expression of a fleeting, albeit genuine, micro-moment of love (a genuine smile, a heartfelt “are you okay?” or hug of affection).  In these strikingly simple and tender moments you become twice as trusting of others and they are twice as trusting as you.

With oxytocin’s role in love, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that increased exposure also leads to greater heart health. The beauty of this finding is that it brings the case for workplace love full circle. When managers express micro-moments of love they can’t help but create a gravitational force that draws others in. The orbit of safety activates followers’ calm-and-connect response. This, in turn, leads to unprecedented levels of trust. And, when trust is present, others fear less and love more.  With more love pumping through our bloods and brains, oxytocin levels spike and love’s contagion effect takes hold.  This, in turn, creates a ripple effect of love in our workplaces.  The culture of love nourishes employees’ hearts which, as we now know, saves lives.

Ready to Amp Your Leadership with Love? Try These Three Simple Strategies

Below are three deceptively simple strategies to instantaneously inject more love into your leadership.

1. Say this One Word

What if more love in the workplace was as simple as uttering one word more frequently?  Recent research suggests it is. The one word panacea? “Together.”

According to Priyanka Carr and Greg Walton of Stanford University, you would be wise to add the word “together” into your managerial vocabulary.  In the researchers’ studies, participants first met in small groups, and then separated to work on difficult puzzles alone. In the first group, the participants received a tip from a researcher who said that they were working on the task “together.”  The second group also got a tip from a random researcher, but the word together was purposefully left out when the tip was delivered. The effects of this small manipulation were dramatic. Participants that were told that they were working “together,” persisted longer on the challenging task, expressed greater interest in— and enjoyment of —the task, and performed significantly better overall.

As human beings, we are hardwired to want to work together and the word “together” is a verbal cue that elicits feelings of trust, connection, and belonging.  Even if your team is not technically working together, feelings of togetherness clearly have a direct impact on your team’s motivation and performance.

2. Cultivate Your Team’s Character, Not Just Their Competence

Most companies have a strict edict that managers create yearly development plans with their employees.  These are often geared at skill gaps that employees can close through the “3Es” – experience, exposure, and/or education. Noticeably absent from these  plans are strategies to recognize, amplify, and more effectively deploy an employees’ character strengths. This is a costly omission.

One of the most powerful assessments to harness character strengths is the The VIA Classification. It includes 24 character strengths that  have been found to be universal across religions, cultures, nations, and belief systems. These character strengths are considered the “basic building blocks” of a flourishing life.

Underneath the veneer of an employees’ talent, is a fundamental differentiator that makes them indispensable: who they are as a person. Being recognized for your uniquely human character traits is social lubricant for more meaningful workplace connections. The recent blog post “Does Your Company Make You a Better Person?” demonstrates the value of belonging to a workplace where your manager does more than help you succeed on projects, problems, and products. She also helps you work on yourself. This unambiguous display of love—in the form of genuine care and concern—differentiates your leadership and creates a level of team trust that truly closes the gap between corporate rhetoric and everyday reality.

3. Find Greatness in Gratitude

Do you suffer from Gratitude Deficit Disorder, otherwise known as “GDD?” If you don’t in your life, there is a good chance you do at work. The workplace is the worst place to find gratitude.

According to a 2012 survey by the John Templeton Foundation, 60% of people report that they never express gratitude at work. If they did, they reported doing so “perhaps once a year.” Despite this lack of thanks in the workplace, people still understand that gratitude has the power to improve happiness, with 88% reporting that expressing gratitude to colleagues makes them feel happier and more fulfilled. Beyond the personal well-being benefits,  research suggests that a thank you email doubled the number of people willing to help  you in the  future.  Even more compelling is why the recipients were motivated to help out. They found that people weren’t providing more help because they felt better or it boosted their self-esteem, but because they appreciated being needed and felt more socially valued when they’d been thanked.

For these reasons, LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner, says that gratitude is the “highest ROI management tool I know ….it is available to everyone, costs essentially nothing, and is a proven driver of workplace productivity.

These techniques are small steps to take the  “l-word” out of the corporate closet.  They break down love into three easy to implement strategies that – in turn– build up your leadership impact.

And, in the process, they remind us that in the eponymous words of Tina Turner, when it comes to the workplace, love— actually— has quite a bit to do with it.

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Jessica Amortegui

Jessica Amortegui

Jessica Amortegui believes passion is a stimulant to better business results, and she brings plenty of it to her work with leaders, managers, and teams. Jessica received an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College and graduate degrees from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania. After her studies; she worked in various capacities at Deloitte, Booze & Co, IBM, Nike, and Victoria’s Secret. She serendipitously found her way to a “valley” that shares the same uncanny energy, optimism, and grit that she does. She currently works in leadership development for VMware, a high technology company headquartered in Palo Alto, California.
Jessica Amortegui

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