The number one organizational trait nobody wants to talk about

Let’s talk about love. (Cue the crickets.) Love can be uncomfortable to discuss, especially in the business world. We love our families and friends, but colleagues and customers? In the land of assets and inventories, love feels unserious and unprofessional, insubstantial and inefficient.

It’s no wonder we think that way. We tend to see organizations as collections of facts and figures and factories, plans and processes and projects. And we forget the people. But by definition, organizations are made up of people—people working together in pursuit of common goals. And people love.

All that is true about people is also true of organizations. Organizations grow. They change with experience and learn with practice. Organizations feel. They experience elation and pride. Sometimes they suffer under stress or uncertainty. They hurt, and then they heal. Sometimes they feel aimless or even hopeless. Organizations do get tired. They need rest. Sometimes they get lazy, but they also get going when the going gets tough. Like families, organizations care and share, and laugh, and yes—they love. To be healthy, organizations must love.

Strip away the baggage of the word itself, and love is a simple thing. To love is to value someone and put their best interests first. People give their best to leaders who practice this principle.

If only the deed were as simple as the definition. Putting others first is easy when it costs nothing. But occasionally loving means sacrificing one’s own interests. Such sacrifices are proof of love. But shareholders tend not to appreciate sacrifices, and sometimes to elevate the interests of one person is to compromise the interests of others.

Given the complexity of balancing what’s best for everyone, is it any surprise that some leaders allow a dog-eat-dog culture to grow up around them? Sadly, these leaders are pulling the plug on the power of their organizations.

The purpose of organizations is the pursuit of “superordinate goals.” These are goals such as innovation, product development, safety, and profitability that transcend any one person. In a healthy organization, superordinate goals bring people together and drive excellence. But when employees know that management does not value them or care about their interests, these shared objectives lose their unifying and motivating power.

Emotions are in charge when it comes to motivation. The way we feel—and in particular the way we feel about people—is what moves us. And among emotions, love is the most powerful. After all, organizations exist to create value, which requires understanding needs and fulfilling the best interests of others.

And value-orientation isn’t the only benefit of love. Caring organizations also see workplace productivity boosts. Managers commonly attempt to improve efficiency by ratcheting up the pressure, when they should be ratcheting up the love.

Consider a different sort of organization—the family unit. Would you rather have a happy family, or an efficient one? We don’t tend to think of efficiency as a desirable attribute in families the way we do in businesses. And yet, family efficiency matters, as any parent trying to organize an outing well knows. And in situations where efficiency is a must, a positive, friendly tone toward a spouse or warm attentiveness toward children yield astonishing returns on invested effort in the form of cooperation, communication, and engagement in the activity at hand. As a side benefit, loyalty grows too.

By contrast, think about when you’ve been part of a family experience where stress took over and you found yourself in “efficiency mode.” It is amazing how inefficient people can be when you scowl and bark at them. Not that, ahem, I would know anything about that.

Having conversations about love with peers, superiors, and subordinates is awkward, so it can help to disguise the word with synonyms. Two of my favorites are “caring” and “kindness.”

Caring is a great word because it is easy to understand how caring about customers and colleagues improves company performance. From there, it’s a short step to creating a culture of caring.

Random acts of kindness are fine, but they don’t have to be random. The word “kind” derives from the same German root word as “kin,” which offers a clue to what kindness is all about: feeling a sense of shared identity with another person. When we are kind, we are treating another person as we would treat someone who is the same “kind” of person as ourselves. We value them and put their interests first—even ahead of our own.

No matter what you call it, love matters in organizations. Because while they can feel mechanical, organizations are in fact organic—made up of living, breathing beings. And people do best when we show them a little love.


Banner photo by Brian Mann, licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal