Does Love Have a Role in the Workplace?

I went to a lunch time seminar a while ago. We ate nice food and discussed some fairly arcane topics.  One was, “Does love have a role in the workplace?”.  At first I thought that was a weird one.

The group was a mix from business and the public sector. It also included a smattering of people from around Europe.

Many thought love not an appropriate concept for the world of work, to summarise, asserting that business is rational while love is emotional. The question was greeted with amazement by many. In particular, those for whom English was a second language, albeit a really strong one, associated love simply with family ties, romance and so on. The answer was easy to this group, an incredulous and resounding, “No!”.

Others argued that it does have a place at work if you understand the numerous subtle nuances of a word so complex as to be rather unhelpful if not unpacked a little. We discussed an interpretation that included interdependence, trust and respect, and the resulting motivation and commitment derived from strong relationships that are bound together with a little emotion. That’s a little cold, but I think it counts.

The debate went on for a while and became quite robust, with each group incredulous at the attitude of the other.

Finally, we turned to a senior military officer who was among the group. He’d said nothing up to that point.

His response was simple. In the army, the answer is absolutely, unequivocally, yes. They would be lost without it. While they’d never use the word itself, much of training and cultural development is designed specifically to create groups who take huge risks with and for each other. Without intense ties, they would likely fail under the extreme stress of operations.

I was in the yes camp. I can see a link between the rational and the emotional, translate one into the other. Now and again a little emotion (and I don’t mean being grumpy or angry) helps me connect people to each other, get things done and increases my enjoyment of it all.  Especially when working globally.

I think I might give the word itself a swerve though.

I can’t wait to hear what you think about this one!


18 thoughts on “Does Love Have a Role in the Workplace?

  1. Really good challenge here and it’s peoples unfamiliarity with this type of discussion that I think is very telling and important. Yet we love/hate our work/job… We love/hate our boss…

    We can’t help but bring our emotion to work and use it to express our feelings (emotion again!) about what we are doing. So why do we question & challenge the role of love (feelings/emotion) in the workplace? It has a role that we deliberately create for it (see those questions above)!

    I think there’s value in holding that emotion behind the word “love” and finding comfort with what it actually means to us. Are we uncomfy with the segregation between home and work? Are we uncomfy with loving others outside our family unit? Are we confusing love with attraction? Perhaps work is love and work without love is just employment?

    Personally, I’d say use it and understand it rather then swerve it.

  2. I’m with the army dude, at least in so far as without love we’d be lost. And yet like may of these vital strands and signs, you can’t force it. Johnny Cash put it better than me in ‘Walk The Line’.

    I used to whisper the word ‘fun’ at work, and often capitulate and replace it with ‘enjoyment’. Nowadays I’m a huge advocate of fun at work – so long as it arises naturally (I’ve yet to go and visit a client in a clown suit – though I’m happy for people to take the piss out of my shirts!). I hear a desire expressed for fun in the workplace a lot more now, and it is much less likely to be accompanied by those annoying air guitar speech marks. Currently I use the word love a lot, and a lot more than I used to.

    We’ve always done things with love. Admittedly not everything, but I think you know when someone loves what they do….for you? And so by implication there is love for you in that act of whatever it is they just did?

    I knock about with a bunch of cyclists. We enjoy each other’s company – we ride, drink and swear and laugh a lot. A little while ago – one of the group said something along the lines of ‘you are a great bunch of friends – I love you, all of you.’ He meant it – and I am extremely uplifted by what he said.

    If people want to use the word – I think that’s great. And as you say the word has complex nuances and as you have experienced, a lot of people are extremely uncomfortable with it. I’m often wrong, and personally I think business is often completely irrational so I’m not sure the argument of emotional v rational stands up to much scrutiny.

    My ramble is over – thanks for writing this post Anthony.

    Love – Doug

  3. Now here is a challenging topic! I guess it all hinges on the meaning and context of love. I am generally in the incredulous No camp but that is because I would assume we are talking about romantic love. I usually advise my mentees to steer clear of romantic love at work simply because of the risks and complications involved, especially where there is an imbalance of power/hierarchy. It can go very badly wrong and being in the world of project management I prefer to mitigate the risks :-). Having said that some people do get romantically involved and end up very happily married – so maybe there is role for love in the workplace.

    Your army chap was talking about a very different type of love; the team bonding and strong emotional ties within a high performing team. I have certainly experienced a huge sense of emotional loss at the breakup of a good team. But I still don’t think I would call it love…..

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  5. Responding to these comments has been stretching. I have broken out several replies. In summary, it is a complicated word. So much so as to be unhelpful unless unpacked a little.

    I ended up reaching for a book I’ve not read since I was 17. C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. Actually, I reached for the Wikipedia summary of it. It describes four variations of love, based on four Greek words for it. Normally I may only paste a link, but this context is maybe useful, so here is a longish extract from ; I have cut it down a bit.

    While I couldn’t do better, these categories are still difficult to align with this discussion. In particular because the one that maps most closely to work is friendship. It’s only when you read the definition that this makes any sense.

    I would add increasing levels of trust, respect and interdependence to plot a path from affection to friendship and add a little emotion as you go, especially as we hit romance. The unconditional bit is an extreme state reached, for me, for family and for a very few friends and perhaps some collectives, for example, under privileged people.


    Storge – affection
    Affection (storge, στοργή) is fondness through familiarity ( a brotherly love ), especially between family members or people who have otherwise found themselves together by chance. It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves : natural in that it is present without coercion; emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity; and most widely diffused because it pays the least attention to those characteristics deemed “valuable” or worthy of love and, as a result, is able to transcend most discriminating factors. Ironically, its strength is also what makes it vulnerable. Affection has the appearance of being “built-in” or “ready made”, says Lewis, and as a result people come to expect, even in this mythical, non hormonal presence, its presence—irrespective of their behavior and its natural consequences.

    Phileo – friendship
    Phileo (Greek: φιλία) is the love between friends. Friendship is the strong bond existing between people who share common interest or activity. Lewis immediately differentiates Friendship Love from the other Loves. He describes Friendship as, “the least biological, organic, instinctive, gregarious and necessary of our Loves” – our species does not need Friendship in order to reproduce. He uses this point to explain that Friendship is exceedingly profound because it is freely chosen.

    Lewis boldly asserts that few people in modern society appreciate true Friendship because few of them have experienced it.

    Eros – romance
    Eros (ἔρως) is love in the sense of ‘being in love’ or ‘loving’ someone. This is distinct from sexuality, although he does spend time discussing sexual activity and its spiritual significance in both a pagan and a Christian sense. He identifies eros as indifferent.

    Agape – unconditional love or charity (agapē, ἀγάπη) is the love that brings forth caring regardless of the circumstance. Lewis recognizes this as the greatest of loves.


    They aren’t perfect are they? But may be they are a start, and better than I could do.

  6. Those categories helped me understand the variations to some extent. I have tried to round up my answers to David, Doug and Diane in one go. Thank you very much for joining in on what is a surprisingly difficult topic. I have got no where near answering all your points.

    Would I apply each at work?

    Affection (as defined here) – Yes, while remembering that, it is the people not the corporation doing the loving.

    Friendship (as defined here) – Yes, but I think it works best if you are willing to give yourself to it to get the mutual benefit. Reading the definition reminded me that the concept of friendship has been diluted by our misuse of the word online which is a shame. I am delighted to count my friends in quite small numbers. Doug touched on this and related to personal friends. I think this definition works for work. Every time I start to work with new people I say I am going to make some new friends.

    Romance (by any definition) – Not much use for getting most types of work done (with the exception of artistic work I suppose) but inevitable between people, which includes those who meet at work. I take Diane’s point though. Handle with care.

    Unconditional or Charity (not really defined here very well, I sense a Wikipedia edit war!) – An interesting one this. I have seen blind loyalty to people, managers and corporations. The latter can’t love you. There is a distinction between unconditional and unthinking. In my case the unconditional ones are also very conscious, very rational. I know why. That may be just me. The context, e.g work, is neither here nor there.

    In our super connected world, it may be we should add an extra layer or two e.g., “Connection”, to reflect the numerous but explicit loose ties we have these days. More on that another time. I am rumbling on a Circles of Trust post. Expect that in about five years!

    Overall, I suspect that love is too dense to be binary about and declare relevant to work. Even with four words to go at , it’s still a tough one.

    By the same token, I get a little frustrated when I hear, “love”, bandied around. It is a word I reserve for when I really mean it, albeit in some approximation to one or more of of these categories. But then, I do over think things a little. I much prefer love to hatred.

    I have made some very good friends at work. A while ago I started doing it on purpose and with a dash of deliberate positive emotion. I am going to keep doing so. The more I give, the more I make transient fun, sustain enjoyment and achieve fulfilment. They are radically different things too, reflecting levels of happiness in pleasure, passion and purpose. That’s one to unpack another time. I don’t see it as a choice between fun and enjoyment, They are different. I value the latter more highly. I can feel a curry coming on 🙂

  7. Nice post Anthony, I remain in two minds about love, but do talk about it much more than I used to. I’m not sure whether we should try to develop it – though I’m looking forward to seeing John Mackay talk about developing it at Whole Foods when he’s in town later in the year. But I think it’s certainly an issue for organisations that it’s such an alien term currently. Our businesses should be places it is possible to love but very frequently are.

    • Jon,

      I enjoyed the tweet stream this week. Thanks.

      I think its one of those words we need understand better. Once we do we will comfortable using it more or maybe some more precise words. One of the things on my mind through this has been the fact that while we are privileged to use one of the richest most varied and nuanced languages in the world, we insist on cramming so much in that one four letter word that we struggle to use it all for fear of being misunderstood. Or is it for fear of letting just a little emotion out. Likely both.



  8. Not the first to comment this time. I assure you I have not fallen out of love with this blog.

    It’s an interesting one as far as I’m concerned, and you are right in your assertion that the word ‘love’ has many and varied connotations and interpretations, almost to the point that your question could credibly be answered both ways. “I love my job” is said often, but refers to a different type of love than “I love my wife” and, I hope, a different type of love then “I love my boss” (not least because he’s a man).

    I think the army dude got it wrong. In my interpretation, those are all credible facets but they’re not love. Close friendship, emotional bonds are what they are and, in some cases, are aspects of love but they are not synonyms for love.

    For fear of not over-complicating matters however, if you unpack the word too much I think you run the risk of even further (mis)interpretation, and I think Captain Darling did just that. Love, for me, is an expression of deep admiration, of unfettered passion and of desire. All three of those words are equally applicable to love in the romantic sense (wife, not boss) as they are in the work sense. It’s the context that counts. You can have a passion for your work, but you’re not about to exchange genetic fluid with it (unless you’re in the porn industry but let’s not go there).

    So I think there is a place for love in the workplace and, to take it even further, I think it should be promoted. I did a presentation earlier today on how to create a culture of innovation. I had a slide which had the following short sentence on it: “Be (very) excellent”. What I meant by that was that in order to give people a real passion for what they do, and to begin the process of innovation, you have to find something you’re really good at and then do lots and lots of it. All too often people end up being really good at something but then not using it in their work, which leads to underperformance and frustration. So by following this approach, and encouraging people to find what they’re (very) excellent at, you are in effect stimulating love, that is, people are more likely to love their job if they do something they’re really good at.

    Given I met my wife at work, there’s also a place for the other sort of love, but perhaps I shouldn’t promote that one as much.

    • It’s bordering on being a silly word. I can cope with only having one word for snow (ok maybe a few more than one, but not the fabled 50) but the L word is just unhelpful.

      Anyway, finding what people are good at, helping them get better at it, connecting them to each other, cheering them on and watching the unplannable results is brilliant.

      Rational and emotional count; the physical bit is optional.

      Admiration, passion and desire; that’s a good definition. Will think on that more.

      As usual, as well as making me think, your comment made me laugh… On a commuter train… While reading an article about love … I now have four seats all to myself.

  9. Reblogged this on People Performance Potential and commented:
    What a great question and topic to explore. Perhaps more strikingly, I wonder what it is that has stopped us from having these conversations at work? I love how Anthony has responded with deeper enquiry and reflection.

    So at the end of your working week why not take a read and perhaps reflect on your own thoughts about the role of what we call”Love” in the workplace.

    • David,

      Thanks. I have been utterly taken aback by the response to this one. I should say the things I most want to say more often!

      The post was roughly five years in the mulling and 15 mins in the writing. The comments caused me to lay awake (in a good way) for many hours early on Tuesday morning.

      I suspect the reason we don’t discuss it is that rather like we don’t have enough words for snow, we don’t have specific and well enough understood words for what we mean by love.

      Further reflections would be, well, lovely 🙂



  10. Interesting responses generated… obviously a topic close to folks’ hearts ( if we are to speak of love).
    I’m one of those who uses the word love frequently and unreservedly. It makes me smile when I get pulled up for saying that I love working with an individual, or I love a clever tweet someone has made.. perhaps I am more free-spirited than many, but I believe if I can love widely and well, so can others. There is joy, for me, in working with love, attachment, connection. It makes me happy to do and makes me glad to work and create.

    I am, therefore, very much in the “YES to Love having a role in the workplace” camp. I believe the energy that sits around having an attachment to something – the striving to do your best to impress or yielding of self & ego for the benefit of something other than yourself – is valuable, beautiful and necessary, in work or out of work… and totally freak a lot of people out when you talk about it.

    We are in the realms of working with heart, here, perhaps –
    Working with true heart for me, is about working expansively – with compassion, generosity, openness, care, humour and affection.
    Working with no heart is smaller – needy, seeking approval, working with jealous competition, working selfishly

    and there is, as they say, a thin line between love and hate. I see hatefulness and a lack-of-humanity in organisational systems, paradoxically often when the organisations are trying to “care” for their employees. You can love and protect too much.

    So for me, it’s like anything – love needs boundaries, balance and containers to be effective – unfettered compassion or generosity leads to loss-of-self, for instance.. and let’s not get started on unfettered passion…..

    I’m delighted you wrote this post. Love the conversation it generates. Hope the notion of Love at Work continues to generate more thought and discussion.

    In the meantime, my Twitter account and linkedin both say “doing stuff with love” I live it, I do it, I love it. If anyone wants to buy me a glass of wine and debate this with me – well, I’d just love that.

    • Julie,

      Thanks for adding so joyfully to this stream. I particularly enjoyed the subsequent Limerick 🙂

      You made me think further.

      Fearfulness (almost entirely irrational, at least until the antibiotics stop working) seems to be at the heart of why we don’t just give ourselves to things, including each other.

      Frankly, while we build a little trust (yet another subtle nuance of the L word) holding back a little is understandable. Once you are there though, and that can be quite quick if you set out to do it on purpose, giving yourself tends to cause you get a lot back.

      Accepting you are loved (in a vast array of complicated ways) is pretty important too. That’s a whole other post.



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