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Yetunde Hoffmann has a radical proposition: that we should bring love to work.

Yetunde is a visiting fellow at the University of Reading’s Henley Business school, renowned speaker, and the author of Beyond Engagement: The Value of Love-Based Leadership in Organisations.

On the latest episode of Human, she joins my colleague Cengiz Besim to explain that love and leadership aren’t just good for people at work. They also deliver business results.

Now, I know that for many leaders and organisations, the idea of bringing emotions to work is an alien concept—let alone talking about connecting leadership with a deeply human emotion like love. But stick with me. It’s not a hippie idea. We know that when people can bring their whole selves to work, they create unique value for themselves and the business.

Put another way, love inspires us and brings out the best in us.

The business case for love at work

To be clear, Yetunde’s definition of love is quite specific. She defines it as ‘the ability and the willingness to see an individual for who he or she is’. And she has a compelling business case for bringing love to the workplace:

‘When we come in from a place of love in business, we’re contributing to our people. And when your people know that you want the best out of them, it becomes easier to align them behind your organisational purpose and what you’re trying to do. They know that you’re trying to drive results beyond the bottom line. It’s not just about money, it’s about making them great. It’s about helping them really unleash their potential. And so, they trust you more. And when you have greater trust, it leads to a much-reduced fear of change’.

—Yetunde Hoffmann

I like that quote because Yetunde highlights the connection between love and more effective change management. For example, we know that psychological safety is a key dynamic behind high-performance teams. In these teams, people aren’t hindered by fear of each other and feel comfortable being themselves and expressing themselves. That means they take reasonable risks, suggest new ideas (even if they’re half-baked), learn from their mistakes and speak up.

Trust is also important. If organisations need to foster psychological safety within teams, they must also build trust between individuals and between teams. Trust is learned through repeated experiences with reliable individuals—people who say what they do and do what they say. It’s also reciprocal, so if someone demonstrates that they trust you, you’re more likely to trust them.

And consider that in 2020, Fortune’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For based 85 percent of their ranking on ‘what employees report about their experiences of trust and reaching their full human potential as part of their organization, no matter who they are or what they do.’ And it pays off: Forbes’ best workplaces generate three times the average annualized returns of the S&P 500.

On the flip side, the cost of not addressing psychological safety and trust is high. Accenture research found that issues of fear and trust are at the heart of 85 percent of failed transformations. And those issues of fear and trust are exacerbated in the COVID-19 pandemic. If your organisation can foster psychological safety and trust, that can help unlock the full value of your transformation efforts.

Love makes leaders more effective

Yetunde also links love with effective leadership. She says:

‘Leaders have a fundamental obligation to demonstrate love. When you feel accepted, welcome, included, then you find yourself walking tall. And if organisations are full of employees who are walking tall psychologically, it’s amazing. They’ll go above and beyond for their clients. They’ll go above and beyond for themselves. When you feel valued, you want to help your colleagues win, you help your clients win and you help your customers win.’

—Yetunde Hoffmann

Being a loving leader means being vulnerable, and that often makes people uncomfortable. But vulnerability is a component of Emotion & Intuition, one of the five elements of responsible leadership outlined in joint research from Accenture and the World Economic Forum (WEF). I can say from personal experience that when I show vulnerability, I connect more deeply with my teammates and colleagues, which helps us work together better.

Yetunde also notes that love at work doesn’t just mean puppies and rainbows. Sometimes it means having difficult conversations.

‘Demonstrating love at work in difficult times is not an easy thing to do. But it means being selfless, not selfish. It means seeing through the person’s behaviour to the individual and being able to separate those two. You can show love and compassion to somebody, for example, who’s no longer suitable for a role, but recognizing that their value is more than just their job.’

—Yetunde Hoffmann

Bringing love to leadership also emphasises the very human qualities that make effective leadership so rewarding, both for leaders and their people. For example:

  • Selflessness, giving and serving. When you come from a place of love, your intentions shift. It’s not about fixing a problem so the business can achieve its goals for the quarter, it’s about connecting with someone on a human level. These ideas also underpin the concept of servant leadership, which always came from a place of love.
  • Empathy, compassion and caring. These human skills are more important than ever during COVID-19 when people’s anxiety and fear are running high. By really understanding someone else’s viewpoint and what they might be feeling, you can take actions that make a difference.
  • Positivity and empowerment. As Yetunde says, loving leadership means acknowledging and dealing with the negative. But it also means highlighting the positive, looking for the best in people and helping them achieve their potential. Fostering a growth mindset in yourself and your people is important here: the difference between ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ and ‘I don’t know how to do this yet’.
  • Respect, inclusion and belonging. Every individual is unique and brings something of value, and when we appreciate and include everyone, organisations get better. And there’s a critical distinction between diversity, which can be simply box-checking behaviour, and inclusion, in which people can bring their whole selves to work and be comfortable doing so.
  • Joy, fun and creativity. On average, people spend one-third of their life at work. Who wouldn’t want a more joyful, fun and creative experience?

Love drives lifelong learning

I’ve written at length about the importance of helping people develop new skills for new roles, and for transforming learning so that it’s experiential, engaging and effective. Learning is especially critical right now. The COVID-19 pandemic and the pivot to work-from-home means many people need to learn new skills, fast. It also means that organisations that relied on face-to-face training need to digitise their capabilities.

So it’s no surprise that I nodded my head when Yetunde said this:

‘We know that jobs and organisations are going to change. And we should be investing now, if we’re coming from a place of love. A place where we say our people are more than just a means to an end, or another notch of market share. They’ll be investing in reskilling programs, enabling people to become more self-sufficient, learn new things. Plus, we’re living longer, which means that individuals have to keep reskilling and learning ourselves. And organisations that come from a place of love have an obligation to help their employees reskill and learn and be prepared for the future of work.’

—Yetunde Hoffmann

Let’s talk about love

Finally, Yetunde shares good advice for organisations where love may not yet be present in the workplace. Quite simply: start talking about it.

‘It can be challenging, but you’ve got to talk about it. Why would we, in our organisation, find it uncomfortable? Even having that as a topic starts to normalise it a little bit. How come we’re not the best organisation we can be? What might be getting in the way? And if love were present, what difference could it potentially make? And sometimes, depending on the culture, talking about this in the third person or in another organisation, “What would we advise other businesses to do?” might be a nice way to bring the notion of love into business.’

—Yetunde Hoffmann

I like her suggestion of shifting the perspective outside your organisation as a gentle way to explore the power of love at work.

As the Beatles once said, ‘all you need is love.’ Now, that may be a bit simplified, but there’s some truth to it.

  • Love is good for people. When leaders act from a place of love, they can connect and engage with people more effectively. That can motivate people to achieve higher performance and boost productivity; it can also reduce the friction hindering performance, and the costs associated with low productivity. What’s more, when a workplace is based on a culture of love, people enjoy better working lives and better mental health—a crucial issue in the workplace, especially during COVID-19.
  • Love is good for the business. When people within the business can bring their full selves to work and truly belong, they can achieve their full potential. And that means the organisations they work for can achieve future growth and business agility. They can also tap into the greater creativity and innovation that comes with high performance teams. For example, our research found that innovation is correlated with equality. Specifically, the innovation mindset is six times higher in most-equal cultures than in the least-equal ones.
  • Love is good for customers. When organisations come from a place of love, they also foster more human connections with their customers. A growing body of research shows that when organisations invest in the employee experience, the customer experience also benefits. Analysis from Glassdoor found that companies that provide a great employee experience outperform the S&P 500 by up to 122 percentage points, and Gallup research found that companies with highly engaged workforces show higher customer loyalty, profitability and sales productivity.
  • Love is good for society. At the 2020 World Economic Form, we released a report explaining why responsible leadership is essential for business success—and sustainability—in the 2020s. Business can no longer focus solely on the bottom line. And at its core, responsible leadership comes from a place of love, which supports stronger, more human connections with communities, society and the planet.

I’m grateful to Yetunde and Cengiz for their thoughtful conversation and hope that you listen and learn from it. You can also read Cengiz’s thoughts on how love can transform your workplace.

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