Is love an important ingredient for organisational development?

First published on the NHS Do OD blog.

I have gathered some insights over the past few years that have propelled me to write about the subject of love in organisation and OD practice. 

Insight one 

I was asked to be an external examiner of a PhD thesis on The Relationship between Transformational Leadership and Love as 'a Choice to Will the Highest Good' using the Transformational Leadership Questionnaire (TLQ). The title was so intriguing that I quickly agreed. When I finished ploughing through the 306 pages, I was stuck by (1) how much academic literature there is around this topic, and (2) in times like this, love is such an important subject that we must scheme to restore it to the organisation. 

Insight two

In the past few years, I have come across more and more people who have either lost their 'skip' to work or are in a semi-permanent state of dissatisfaction about their work experience, regardless of their rank. The bottom people blame their middle managers for making lives difficult by being so production driven. The middle managers blame their ineffective leaders for failing to connect with them. The tops are distressed by unrealistic expectations from board members, shareholders and their own vulnerability facing a merciless public media world. Somehow, the sense of joy, fun, deep fulfilment, and calling to live an impactful life have been lost, with a sense of fatalism moving in to stay. 

Insight three

The deep dissatisfaction at work is caused by a myriad of factors, but the key one is the continuously over capacitated state which leaves people without any energy to invest in relationships and build community at work. This state of 'need to look out for me and my survival' is further reinforced by the over dominance of a silo working culture. 

So.....the stewing effects of these insights drove me to ask whether a) the current strong focus on doing more engagement work; or b) the current type of interventions we OD practitioners use - are either sufficient or effective to restore love, relationships, affiliative culture and work community to the organisation? 

What is love? – a psychological construct, a behaviour? 

The study of love came from two key strands: the psychological field and the leadership literature. In a few paragraphs below, I will give a skim review of the love journey. 

Love as a construct has existed in psychological literature for decades and many psychologists Allport (1983)  believe that such behaviours can be cognitively mapped. This means that the concept of 'love' as a psychological dimension can be studied, especially in most robust leadership questionnaires - for example, the Transformational Leadership Questionnaire (TLQ), the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ), the Leadership Profiles Inventory (LPA), etc. 

In the field of leadership study, Kouzes and Posner (1987) posited that "love is a vital aspect of exemplary leadership". After numerous interviews and case analyses, they came to the conclusion that most exemplar leaders have something in common, i.e. they love their products, people, customers, and their work – hence they concluded that love is the best kept secret of exemplar leadership. 

After many years of studying transformational leaders, Burns defined transformational leaders as: 

“The transforming leader looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower. The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.” (1987:4) 

In this definition, Burns focused on the intention leaders have in identifying broad psychological benefit to the follower based on specific actions of themselves as leaders. 

Then Boulding (1989) came along and espoused the theory of love as an integrating power. He defined love as “having a genuine concern for others within a relationship organisation context, demonstrated via behaviour sourced from clear intentionality of the leaders, and having an integrative power.”  This converges with Burns' definition, as both of them see the psychological benefits to the followers are not based on inappropriate paternalistic or hierarchical control, but rather on leaders having 'genuine concern' for the followers, which results in a mutual stimulation and elevation in that relationship. 

So when Miller (2004) pulled together these love constructs - 'consideration', 'encourage the heart', 'genuine concern of others', 'choice to will the highest good', she defined love could be viewed as ‘a choice to will the highest good of other’. The one thing all the authors have in common is that they believe such behaviour must exist in the perception of the followers and not so much from the self-reporting of the leaders. 

Why is love such a key ingredient in organisation life? 

I am not sure we need to rely on research to answer this question, even though there is supporting literature, especially in the area of high performing organisations. Rather, I want to be guided by the generative imagery of what the organisation will be like if love behaviour is the norm. 

Let’s just imagine that people in the complex world of work begin to accept that by their sheer intelligence they cannot solve most issues, and they know that the level of interdependence to get things done is high. They then choose to behave in a considerate way towards others by putting themselves in other people’s position and thinking through what others may need from them. They are also then motivated to encourage colleagues who are finding life tough and voluntarily act to show concern to others, and when the support for others is challenging, they deliberately choose to do what will benefit others the best. 

If leaders, with the help of OD and HR practitioners make it their goal to build an environment to enable the love clusters to become the behavioural norm within an organisation, then the climate of the work place will be nurturing, warm and supportive, one whose members don’t just think of the well being and welfare of others, but consistently choose to will and do the highest good for others - customers/patients/ organisation. The organisation will then be an inspirational place for us to skip to work. 

Also, just imagine when people’s own values are operating actively to aim for collective success, the quality of the interface between people will be soul building and affirmative. Maybe with safety up, people will own their development needs, aim for the greater good, and find being decent and wonderful colleagues to each other is a satisfying thing to do. Then, we can truly say we have done what we can to grow the innate desire of most people who go to work, because they want to: 

  • Collaborate, as human nature is fundamentally relational.  
  • Be given opportunities to serve others, most people want to put themselves out to contribute and achieve.  
  • Achieve something larger than who they are, hence are eager to build networks to achieve something greater than what they can accomplish by themselves.  
  • Take part to complete the virtuous cycle of interdependence, interconnectedness and a strongly networked and bonded work community. 

The challenge we have is that most individuals need a bit of help to know how to demonstrate these love clusters:  

  • They need developmental intervention to show them how to turn these intentions into behavioural dimensions.  
  • They need positive role models from upward and sideways colleagues to show them how to participate in building the conditions. 
  • They need to be supported to stay affiliated and connected with people while functioning in the overbearing task and result driven culture in which they work. They need to be shown how to build capacity to spread good will around. 

This is why we HR/OD practitioners have a major role to play in introducing love back to the work place. Can we do better? 

What are the implications for HR/OD practitioners? 

There are many, but to begin, the following are here to stimulate your own thinking about what you will need to do, play and experiment with them. 

  • Cultivate our own desire to embrace those behavioural clusters of love so that as we work with clients, we will demonstrate what loving behaviours are within the work context.  
  • Rethink the design of different types of intervention to help system members, particularly leaders, to know how to 'will the highest good' for their staff, colleagues, boards and customers. This may require us to make a radical turn in our current development interventions.  
  • Think creatively how to help system members to grow their 'loving cluster' behaviour – especially in formulating cross boundary teams, or intact teams.  
  • Learn how to be a fitter 'gelling agent' – 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.  
  • Incorporate the 'love cluster' behaviour in in-house leadership development programmes – especially since the love aspect of transformation leadership has been well established by literature.  
  • Learn not just to concentrate on the hard core task-focus type of leadership behaviour – e.g. strategic formulation, audit, advance project management programmes, etc., but include the 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. 

The above is not an exhaustive list of issues but may I encourage you to get together with colleagues to dialogue about how to make loving behaviour real in the work place. There must be innovative ways to go about growing the cluster of love behaviour in organisations, in leaders, and in general staff. Maybe we can start now by sending someone a thank you card, or telling them they are a valued team member, etc. I would like to thank all of you for working hard in bringing humanity back to the work place; please have a happy Valentine 'year'.