What’s love got to do with it? The motivating power of passion in business

businesspeople crowd and heart reshaped
businesspeople crowd and heart reshaped

Outside the business world, we have heard about the power and virtue of love for centuries. However, love is not all rainbows and butterflies. The expression of love at work can often be tough and challenging but if we want to give our employees a sense of purpose, it is vital.

Expressed as trust, compassion, friendship, and creativity, love shapes our working environment to such an extent that we could say love is the organisation and vice versa. However, for today’s data-driven systems, love is impossible to quantify or manage. My research has found that many organisations fail to recognise that they are made up entirely of people. And the truth is, people are motivated by love.

Why we ignore love

Love gets expressed at multiple levels of the business system. Sometimes we have heard about it being expressed towards a colleague, sometimes within teams, sometimes within a whole company through HR practices, and sometimes outside the organisation, through relationships with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders.

Yet love has largely been avoided in the study of organisations. We can still find its traces in studies of related concepts, however they often avoid the word ‘love’. These studies may focus on workplace creativity, or ego and the working environment. They might study friendship and trust, they might study altruism, or any other number of personal motivators. In short, love has not received the attention it deserves.

Fundamentally, there is conflict between organisational design and the many ways love is felt and expressed. Studies of organisations and management have been dominated by an emphasis on efficiency, rationality, and measurable performance. These ideas contradict the idea of love, which is about passion and desire, and which is personal and subjective. 

Organisational life tends to choose authority over passion, and consistency over self-realisation. Because love demands exceptions and singularity over reproducible consistency, it presents an innate challenge to the tools we use to study and manage organisations.

Ironically, modern organisations are intrinsically dynamic and evolving, just like love is, but our managerial styles and the reward systems within these organisations are more reflective of assembly line management. Organisations are obsessed with measurable performance and efficiency. But if managers want to retain and motivate their staff, they should appeal to their employees’ passion and desire, which is impossible to quantify.

Love’s three faces

Creating a framework for studying love within organisations begins with understanding the three concepts of eros (me), philia (we), and agape (us all). 

1. Eros

The ancient Greeks seemed to have a strong understanding of the power of love, with separate words to denote its different forms . ‘Eros’ is sexual or passionate love, and is the type most akin to our modern construct of romantic love. Although, in the age of #metoo, it is perhaps not too appropriate for organisations to focus on this type.

2. Philia

 ‘Philia’, on the other hand, should be incorporated in all organisations. This is the love for our friends and something that is based on mutual respect and built on trust. We know that employees are more productive when they have positive relationships with their co-workers. New employees’ might experience philia when they feel welcomed into an organisation, and the resulting emotional bonds promote loyalty and are nearly as important as the work itself.

3. Agape

Agape’ is the broadest love of all, and equates to compassion for all humankind. Agape love is unconditional, sacrificial, and pure. Agape in organisations is perhaps best expressed through compassionate leadership, for example when the UK’s Queen Mother visited Londoners during WWII bombing, or like former US President George W Bush shaving off his hair as a sign of empathy for an employee’s young son who had cancer.

Compassionate leaders are not afraid to show concern and emotion towards their followers. In practice, this helps avoid common workplace problems that we prefer to pretend don’t exist, such as performance review bias, when a person is judged on who they are rather than what they do.

Non-profit organisations are an obvious example of agape in practice, especially when the organisation is staffed by volunteers.

Employee motivation

Love is also vital for employee motivation, for example, unconditional compassion may encourage a firefighter to work not for money, but to help a community they really care about. A manager who understands this motivation is at a distinct advantage compared with one who simply offers yet another raise.

But there is also a dark side to passion. Self-sacrifice may contribute to overworking and strong friendships at work may lead to cliques and favouritism. However only with a stronger understanding of love can we identify these kinds of problems before they start.

Understanding the importance of love will uncover new opportunities and help us understand our organisations, our teams and ourselves. This not only helps understand the ‘why’ behind work, but also improves employee retention and engagement in today’s changing nature of work.

My strongest message to you, as a reader, is that love is neither alien nor misplaced in your organisations. If you consider love to be a worthwhile pursuit in any aspect of your life then you have the opportunity to express love throughout your life, including at work. As a leader, you should commit to expressing love at work. In doing so, you can make a huge difference to the lives of your employees.

Stefano Tasselli is an Associate Professor at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.

Read more Business Impact articles related to soft skills:

Business Impact Volume 17 (3: 2023)

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