(February 14, 2017) – Today is Valentine’s Day—a day that celebrates love between good friends, family, and spouses. In the US, 190 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year. That doesn’t count the hundreds of millions that school children exchange. In nearly every other important relationship, we value the love that is shared between people.
Shouldn’t this same love be present in the employer/employee relationship?
My guess is about 95% of you are about to stop reading. I suggest you hang on for another three minutes. This isn’t going to be some sob story about how employees’ feelings are constantly hurt or an admonition to get them all Valentine’s chocolates. This is about how you can get the most from the team you have and effectively craft the team you want to have. And I’m more convinced than ever that that’s impossible to do if you don’t actually care for and love your employees.
What Does Love Mean in the Workplace?
Before we go further, it’s important to define what we mean by love. In English, the word is a mess. Its meaning can range from “I love this persimmon pudding.” to “Sweetie, I love you with all my heart and want to spend the rest of our lives together.” What the Greeks sorted out for us a long time ago, we’ve since lost along the way.
There were at least six different words and meanings in Greek that we now translate into the single word love in English. We lose a great deal of nuance and meaning by doing so. The three I’d like to focus on are Philia, Storge, and Agape.
Philia love means brotherly love or deep friendship. It is formed by soldiers who fight arm in arm together. It is about being loyal, sacrificing for another, and sharing emotions with them. When you think about your closest friend or a friendship formed through deep shared experience and challenge, this is what we mean. While this is a fantastic quality to have in the workforce and something we would expect to form in a few relationships at work, it is not what we would necessarily expect between all employees and the employer.
Storge love is a bond that forms through familiarity—relationships that are naturally formed and very emotionally open and intense. This is best represented in the parent/child relationship or the relationship between spouses after the limerence stage ends. Storge could form in the workplace, but most likely between very intense relationships that have been established over many years. Co-founders who have been through a lot together come to mind as a possible example.
While the two previous types of love seem possible in the workplace, the love I’ve come to believe is necessary between the employer (i.e. CEO, leadership, managers) and employee is Agape. Agape is the word that we translate as charity (from the Latin “caritas”). Even this word in English is lacking. The concept is much more robust in Greek. It is the idea of a selfless love. It transcends situation and is based on the personhood of the individual. This is what causes you to respect and care for a person no matter their pragmatic value or your similarity with them. It has sweeping implications for how situations with employees are handled. Here are just a few examples:
Scenario 1: Feedback and Performance Assessment
No longer is the feedback that you are giving an employee only about helping the company. Because you care about them as individuals who have intrinsic value, you strive to help them become better employees, better parents, better craftsmen, and better humans.
This “care about life beyond work” principle forms the foundation for more direct and honest feedback about work as well. Kim Scott, a former Googler, Apple executive, and advisor to Twitter, Qualtrics, and other leading tech companies has recently written about radical candor. The core principle is that you get the most out of employees when you are able to be completely honest with them about their performance—otherwise known as radical candor. However, this is only received and beneficial to the employee when they know that you care deeply about them as a person. Another word for that is love. When you love them for who they are (not just what they do for you), you are able to give what she calls guidance. More precise than feedback, it is about employees getting the clarity they need to be better at their job and know where they stand.
Scenario 2: Employee Failure
The next benefit comes when the guidance that you have to give is negative and has consistently been negative. Essentially you’ve come to the place where the employee isn’t effectively performing their job from your perspective. There are two paths to resolve this. You could fire them. (We’ll deal with that next.) Another option (one that I think should be considered much more often) is to articulate how leadership has failed the employee and to explore structural changes to their role that could turn them from a liability into an asset that the company values and wants to keep. Research has shown that employees are consistently dissatisfied with the extent to which they are challenged in their role. Many times, this is because of narrowly crafted positions that limit the employee and create the expectation of perfect performance. Humans are complex and creative beings that thrive with challenge and growth. I would argue that if the management team would be willing to put in the work to leverage the talent and potential each employee has, there would be few instances where the miss would be big enough to require the relationship to end. But, without the kind of love that values individuals for their adaptability and creativity (because they are human), it is often very hard to see a person as someone who can grow or change.
The biggest mental challenge that faces leaders here is that they don’t recognize that talent and employee contribution follows a power law distribution—meaning that there are very few extreme performers and a very long tail of average and lower performers. Contrast that with the truth that human potential is likely much more evenly matched and you end up with a nasty cocktail of fallacies in thinking. As leaders, it is likely that you are a high performer and your tendency is to judge people against the same standard. Instead, we encourage you to accurately assess performance against the role expectations not yourself, but then love the person enough to help them grow and improve.
Scenario 3: Termination
Love is likely the most critical, yet most typically absent characteristic present during termination. No matter the reason for termination, you should love employees with an agape love because this moment reveals how you treat someone when you have little incentive to treat them well. This is one of the most vulnerable and scary times in a person’s life and you can either contribute to this fear or give them confidence by caring. Here’s what that looks like:
- The employee failed in their role. If an employee is being let go because they failed at their job, this shouldn’t be a surprise to them. If you’ve cared about them along the way, then they should know this is coming and should be prepared for it. If you failed in hiring and it didn’t work because they were never a good fit, admit that. It doesn’t do anyone any good to make them think they are worse than they are simply because you can’t get it together and be a good manager. This will help them look for a better fit in the future, grow in areas they are weak, or learn to focus on their strengths. I can’t think of a single benefit to lying to an employee here other than making your own day a little easier. And that’s a sad excuse for treating someone poorly.
- The employee broke a policy. If an employee is being terminated because they broke a policy or committed a crime, I suggest you still treat them with respect. While they may have failed miserably and even harmed the company, you want to create an environment where others can admit failure and know that you won’t seek to destroy them, but will still treat them with dignity through their mistakes.
- The employer outgrew the employee. If an employee must leave because the company has outgrown them, you should check your motives. It is very easy to excuse poor performance management and false assumptions when you are growing. It is lazy to take the easy way out of a hard performance discussion by simply “managing out” a low performer. This is cruel and extremely disrespectful of another person who has quite literally given you a third of their waking hours for the time you paid them. If you genuinely are making changes in the business that require transitions, then they should be treated as such. Every effort should be given to help the employee make the transition and find a place that will treat them like you would want to be treated in this situation.
Every Day Should Be Valentine’s Day
On this Valentine’s day, consider thinking of your employees a little differently. Think of them as people with families, fears, and futures. And treat them how you would want to be treated. At the end of the day, we all share in our humanity and that bond is extremely strong. While we at Emplify know that this way of thinking will result in increased employee engagement and eventual business benefits, sometimes just loving people as people and doing the right thing is way more valuable than any return on investment.