“A company is stronger if bound by love than by fear,” the late Herb Kelleher, co-founder, CEO and Chairman of Southwest Airlines, once said. When Kip Tindell, retired co-founder and Chairman of The Container Store, first heard Kelleher’s bold declaration more than 40 years ago he was, in his own words, “completely taken by it.” In Tindell’s book, Uncontainable, he describes how he and his leadership team went on to shape The Container Store’s “employee first” culture in ways that reflect love. He credits the company’s culture for its success.
I remember very clearly the first time I heard the word “love” uttered in a corporate context. I was about to teach a workshop on leadership and work culture for Lockheed Martin Aerospace. Before I was introduced, the leader of the unit I was speaking to, retired Vice Admiral of the U.S. Navy and former Navy flyer Charles W. (Willie) Moore Jr., told the room full of mostly men they needed to love the people they were responsible for leading. You could have heard a pin drop. Coming from this “man’s man,” the L-word was completely unexpected.
Is it okay to use the word “love” in the workplace? Won’t that make the Human Resources department nervous? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines love as “a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.” Moore explained to his leaders that they may be the most important person in the lives of the individuals they lead. He described how people today are lonely. They may live far away from family members or have few close friends because they are not involved in church or community organizations where most friendships are developed.
Moore wasn't just expressing his personal opinion. A considerable amount of evidence suggests that social disconnection is widespread today. Based on its research findings, CIGNA first reported data in 2018 that chronic loneliness in America has reached epidemic levels. This is consistent with an earlier analysis on the potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness. In January 2020, Cigna reported loneliness has risen to nearly two-thirds (61%) of American adults.
Beyond helping the lonely, there are several compelling additional reasons outstanding leaders such as Kip Tindell, Herb Kelleher and Willie Moore are spot-on when it comes to seeing the difference love can make in the workplace.
1. Love inspires performance excellence and resilience.
Serving others is a reflection of love. Research described in Adam Grant’s book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, shows in a variety of settings that making it clear how the work benefits other human beings has improved performance and protected people from stress and burnout. Students in a university call center who called alumni to raise money for scholarships saw their revenue quintuple after they met a scholarship recipient in person. Radiologists evaluating CT scans increased their diagnostic accuracy 46 percent when the CT scans included facial photos of the patients. High school teachers who believed they were making a difference were found to be less likely to burnout than those who didn’t. The most effective leaders inspire people by connecting them with the people they serve to show them how the work they do is helping others.
2. Love pulls together.
Taking time to get to know and care for the people you lead brings about greater unity. This unity is especially important as your team faces adversity. When love exists among the members of a group, they are more likely to pull together than to tear one another apart. The bond of connection they feel helps them overcome the inevitable obstacles every organization encounters.
3. Love overlooks minor offenses.
When love is present in a team, department or organization, people are more likely to assume the best in others and give them the benefit of the doubt. For example, if a colleague says something that is irritating, they may be inclined to cut them some slack. Absent love, potentially offending words or deeds are more likely to bring about retaliation and sprout rivalries that undermine performance.
4. Love reduces stress.
One 20-year study of workplace environments found that those cultures that lacked supportive relationships substantially increased the risk of mortality, which makes sense when you consider that chronic stress is a leading contributor to premature death. Love among the members of a group serves as a protective factor from chronic stress so that people are healthier and better able to perform at the top of their game.
Relationship Excellence Enhances Task Excellence
Critics say that love makes a work culture too soft. Their concern that valuing and promoting the positive relational side of work will negatively impact productivity or make it harder for a leader to hold people to a high standard is easily addressed by having leaders clearly communicate that being intentional about achieving excellence and results is expected. Developing and tracking metrics helps keep these task objectives top of mind so people don't lose sight of their importance. And when standards are not met, action should be taken to close the performance gap. This reinforces that, along with love, task excellence and results are essential to serving people well, whether they are customers, patients, passengers or students.
What critics miss is that relationship excellence actually enhances how well tasks are performed. When people who work in an organization love the people they work with and serve through their occupation, they work harder to please them. They care about the quality of the product or service they provide and they provide it in a way that reflects love. Employees of a business that reflects love also interact with one another in loving ways. They are supportive, encouraging, patient, kind, empathetic and caring.
Gallup Research has shown that the people we work with and how we interact with them is more important to job satisfaction than what we do. In other words, the quality of relationships is more important to engaging us at work than the type of tasks we perform. Engaged workers give greater effort in their work, they align their behavior with their company’s goals, they communicate and cooperate more, and they actively think of ways to innovate.
In Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work, we tell many inspiring stories of leaders who loved the people they were responsible for leading. Some of these leaders include CNO Admiral Vern Clark, former chief of the U.S. Navy; Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A; Victor Boschini, Chancellor of Texas Christian University (TCU); and Bono, lead singer in the rock band U2.
Few leaders use the L-word. So the next time you hear a leader speaking about “love” in terms of how colleagues treat one another and work together, pay close attention. You may be seeing a future Herb Kelleher or Kip Tindell in the making. As it turns out, love is a powerful source of competitive advantage.
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Michael Lee Stallard is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.
A previous version of this article originally appeared in July 2015. Image Credit: The Container Store's "We Love Our Employees Day" 2014