• Organizational

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Fostering Companionate Love in the Workplace

Thursday 23 October 2014


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This long read was first published in Developing Leaders, Issue 17. Sign up for free with IEDP to receive future issues here.


How creating an affectionate, caring workplace culture boosts employee satisfaction and performance.

It may seem strange to talk about promoting love in the workplace. After all, many have been trained to think that showing emotions at work is for the most part inappropriate, messy, and counterproductive. But consider these real-world scenarios:

In 2008, Barry-Wehmiller, a $1.5 billion global equipment and engineering consulting company, lost 40% of its orders. CEO Bob Chapman decided that to avoid having to lay anyone off, he would require every employee in the company to take a four-week furlough. Chapman described his employees’ reaction as “extraordinary”: “Some team members offered to take double furloughs, stepping up to ‘take the time’ for their co- workers who could not afford the loss of pay…Our decision to use furloughs to save jobs made our associates proud and profoundly touched by the realization that they worked for a company that truly cared about them…they embraced the furlough program because it meant saving someone else’s job.” 

At another company, an employee diagnosed with multiple sclerosis described the tremendous love and compassion of her co-workers as they tried to help her cope during her daily struggles with the condition. Her co-workers brought her roses, orange juice and bagels, and when she still could not deal with her injections, arranged for outpatient nurses to help her. ‘‘My co-workers showed me more love and compassion than I would ever have imagined. Do I wish that I didn’t have MS? Of course. But would I give up the opportunity to witness and receive so much love? No way.’’(Lilius et al., 2003: 23)

Believe it or not, companies with this kind of culture—in which employees look out for each other, routinely demonstrating their care and affection do exist—even big firms. It is what I call a culture of ‘companionate love’. Companionate love is a very different, and far less intense, emotion than romantic love. It is based on warmth, connection, and the ‘affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined’, according to psychologists. It is a social, ‘other-focused’ emotion, promoting interdependence and sensitivity toward other people.

This type of organizational culture leads to markedly greater employee satisfaction, teamwork, and engagement. It can occur company-wide or in a particular department or division. And it is something that leaders can consciously and deliberately foster.

Interestingly, the word ‘love’, and emotions in general, have been largely absent from research about work life for nearly 75 years. But to find evidence of the existence of companionate love among employees, one needs look no further than the foundations of the organizational behaviour field. Although the term ‘companionate love’ had not yet been coined during the early history of the management discipline, classic work from early 20th century organizational scholars reveal evidence of connections between workers involving the feelings of affection, caring and compassion that comprise companionate love. This tradition began as far back as F. W. Taylor in 1911, who—although today associated with concerns for almost robotic efficiency—wrote in his famous monograph Scientific Management2 about the importance of caring and intimacy among workers and between workers and supervisors. He noted that workers appreciated “small acts of personal kindness and sympathy…” and observed that each employee “…was made to feel that she was the object of special care.” Similar observations were made in Hersey’s 19323 daily experience study of Pennsylvania Railroad System employees where he documented the importance of caring, affection, compassion, and tenderness, as well as highlighting the negative effects when these emotions were absent. Somewhere along the line, however, talking about love became ‘unprofessional’. Yet it is notable that the people we spend most of our waking hours with are our co-workers, and (companionate) love can certainly be part of our daily work lives and can influence our job attitudes and productivity.


This type of organizational culture leads to markedly greater employee satisfaction, teamwork, and engagement... And it is something that leaders can consciously and deliberately foster



Proving Companionate Love Exists – Even in Industries Like Finance

My colleague Olivia ‘Mandy’ O’Neill, an assistant professor of management at George Mason University, and I built a theory of a culture of companionate love, basing it on the degree to which employees express affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness towards each other. Then we tested our theory by examining that culture’s influence on employee outcomes. We asked, “How does the amount of companionate love in an organization relate to the kinds of results that employers and employees actually care about?” Our study focused on a long-term care facility for elderly patients, most of whom had Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other severe impairments. The study involved 185 employees of this facility, 108 patients, and 42 patient family members in different units. Our findings were reported in “What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in the Long-Term Care Setting” (forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly).

We discovered that the units in the facility with a stronger culture of companionate love had significantly higher levels of employee satisfaction and teamwork, and lower levels of absenteeism and emotional burnout. Moreover, the positive effect rippled out to the facility’s residents, who experienced better mood, more satisfaction, and improved quality of life. The effect went beyond the psychological: patients in units with a higher level of companionate love actually had fewer unnecessary trips to the emergency room. Even patients’ families were more satisfied.

But, one might think, healthcare is a field in which caring and compassion are part    of the job. What about other industries? We  extended our research to workplaces    for which companionate love is a less obvious fit, surveying 3,201 employees across biopharmaceuticals, engineering, financial services, higher education, real estate, travel, and utilities. The results from these industries—including stereotypically more analytical, results-driven ones like finance—held steady. The findings also crossed gender lines: in the healthcare study, 80% of respondents were women; in the larger study, 80% were men. In all our research, a higher level of companionate love in the culture was associated with more employee satisfaction, commitment, and personal accountability.


How Leaders Can Nurture Companionate Love for Better Business Results

As with other types of corporate cultures, companionate love usually does not arise spontaneously. This means leaders can promote a culture of companionate love, just as they can (intentionally or not) promote a competitive culture, a customer-oriented culture, a results-oriented culture, and the like. The three main ways managers can foster a culture of companionate love, including some notable examples are:


Employees notice a lack of caring and compassion, and respond to this indifference in ways that are not good for them, the manager, the company, or its customers


Role-model the behaviour themselves

This is a critical element. Managers, as a lot of other research has shown, have an outsize influence on the culture of an organization: employees look to them to set the tone. The primary determinant of how much companionate love will exist in a manager’s group is how much companionate love is expressed directly by the manager. Is he or she affectionate and friendly with people, or giving off the impression ‘I just don’t care?’


  • Consider this example: An accountant asks for two weeks off for a death in his family at the height of tax audit In a culture of companionate love, his boss—while inwardly stressed about the loss of resources—will say, “Of course, you need to be with your family. I’ll find someone to cover for you.” In a different kind of culture, he might for example display his frustration, try to bargain for a shorter leave, or expect the employee to be available by cell phone.


Create structures and systems that support companionate love

These could be compensation structures, HR structures, or other kinds of systems that support the idea “at this company we’re compassionate, tender, and affectionate” and enable people to act on those feelings.


  • Cisco Systems instituted a policy that required the CEO to be informed within 48 hours if any employee, or their immediate family, became seriously ill or To make this policy work, the company created the ‘Serious Health Notification System’, which helped get information to the CEO quickly.
  • At some companies, employees can forego vacation days or organize emergency funds on behalf of colleagues in difficult
  • Managers need to accept that they must allow and even encourage a certain amount of unstructured time for employees to relate to one another—for one person to turn to another and say “Hey, you’re looking troubled”, or “Hey, you’re looking ”
  • Institute stories, rituals, and ceremonies that reflect companionate love – Leaders can give formal recognition to instances of companionate love in the organization, and make sure these stories are circulated to employees. Value statements and special events are other
  • Firms can use an ‘employee of the month’ type of recognition to highlight compassionate acts, for example if an employee steps up to take on extra work for an employee who has been
  • At the Internet company Next Jump, the CEO instituted ‘NxJ Love Day’, a randomly- chosen extra day off annually in appreciation of the sacrifices employees make on behalf of the In one employee’s description of the event, he wrote: “That small act of kindness really made us feel that our CEO appreciated and ‘loved’ us!”
  • Several companies highlight companionate love in their values or management principles. Zappos’ values include the statement “We are more than a team…we are a ” Whole Foods Market had a set of management principles that began with ‘Love’, and PepsiCo lists ‘caring’ as its first guiding principle.


The most dramatic demonstrations... emerge when disaster strikes: an illness, a layoff, a death in the family. But what really sustains a culture of companionate love are small everyday moments among employees




As we have seen in many of the examples, the most dramatic demonstrations of companionate love emerge when disaster strikes: an illness, a layoff, a death in the family. But what really sustains a culture of companionate love are small everyday moments among employees. Your team-mate brings you a soda and your favorite pretzels because she knows you are ‘chained to your desk’ on a deadline. The department remembers someone’s birthday and holds a little celebration. Two employees grab coffee before starting their workday so one can share his excitement about a new project he has been assigned to.


What is more, the culture does not have to pervade an entire company to be effective. For example, in our investigations we came across a situation in which employees of a newly acquired division of an aerospace contractor habitually greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. Although corporate officers at the parent company were upset to discover this ritual—fearing harassment lawsuits and the like—the executives ultimately accepted that the affectionate greeting was the division’s unique expression of a culture of companionate love.


Our studies showed that a culture of companionate love can encompass even people     not naturally cheerful or gregarious. These individuals, who tend to be more reserved    and sedate, have low levels of what psychologists call ‘trait positive affectivity’. We hypothesized, and found, that while people higher in trait positive affectivity did respond more readily to a culture of companionate love, the culture nevertheless in most cases influenced everyone. In fact, psychologists have found that enacting an emotion in one’s own face, voice, or body language—even if not genuinely felt at first—can lead one to actually feel it, and gain the psychological benefits. When employees are grateful for    how they are treated, and feel loved, they will likely behave in a similar way toward other employees, leading to a ‘virtuous circle’ in which workers feel that looking out for each other is the regular course of things: “it’s what we do around here”.

Leaders in general need to think more about managing their emotional culture. This is distinct from cognitive culture, which is what we usually think of when we talk about workplace culture. Cognitive cultures are about the way people in the organization should or do think. But emotional cultures are about what emotions people in the organization should or do express. Many kinds of emotional culture are possible: there can be cultures of anger, joy, or fear. We are currently researching the effects of different emotional cultures on business outcomes.

Some managers may think that as long as they do not behave in a way that is actively unpleasant toward their employees, that is sufficiently “caring”. But as Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel famously said, “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” Employees notice a lack of caring and compassion, and respond to this indifference in ways that are not good for them, the manager, the company, or its customers.

Yielding many positive effects for business, companionate love is a natural, legitimate, and productive emotion to have at work. Leaders should – and can - encourage it.


1 Lilius, J. M., M. C. Worline, J. E. Dutton, J. M. Kanov, P. J. Frost, and S. Maitlis 2003 ‘‘What good is compassion at work?’’ Unpublished manuscript, University of Michigan.


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