What would our mental health be like if there was a little more love in the workplace?


November 25th, 2019

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In my last post on mental health, we looked at the cognitive ways that leaders can support their well-being, through critical thinking and reflection. Those habits of mind that can help us navigate the uncertainty, ambiguity and pressure of an increasingly busy world of work. Whilst those skills are powerful and do bring often profound insight, perhaps there needs to be a balance with more emotional approaches too. The winner of our research competition, Helena Clayton, talks about love in the workplace; how people feel about it; what gets in the way and how it may be challenging. I recently spent a day with Helena and about 35 Organisation Development practitioners, exploring what it might mean for us and the organisations we support. The following are my thoughts stimulated by a fascinating discussion of love.

The first thing that struck me was how the word love is used. It seems to be the easiest and the hardest word to say. When people say that they love something (a dress, a TV box set, a car) it seems to be almost a throwaway comment, and directed towards things or experiences. Yet, when we come to think of the word love towards other people or animals, it becomes the hardest word to say, particularly in the workplace. Love is a fundamental human need. Those human needs don’t go away when we walk through the office door, and yet we shy away from even thinking about work being a place where those needs might be met, even partially. Instead other words get used: compassion, caring, valuing were just a few that came up, and yet we were challenged to think if those are aspects of love, why not use a word that encompasses them all; love.

We talked about the absence of love and the opposite of love; the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. How many workplaces are filled with all manner of fear? Fear of failure, rejection, disappointment, not being able to meet others’ expectations, not able to cope with the pressure, not being smart enough…. the list could go on. Now, I’m not saying that that is all that is happening in the workplace. There are places for hope, inspiration, aspiration and excitement, but those states rarely get talked about either.

Part of what makes love problematic in the workplace is that it is often associated with romantic feelings. The love we are talking about is not just a feeling, but a choice, a sometimes difficult and challenging choice at that. As leaders, what would be possible if we allowed ourselves to connect to the part of us that is loving? What choices would we make then? Even to add an element of loving choice into how we manage our own mental health would be a positive influence in many organisations. I’m working on loving acceptance at the moment. To accept that the world is not how I would like it to be is a healthy choice for my own well-being. By adding the word ‘loving’ to it, it challenges me to make that not just a simple mental choice, but a whole hearted one. It means I can’t just acquiesce and grudgingly accept the state of affairs, its requires a more radical response. A choice to love the imperfections, the challenging and sometimes ugly parts of our world. As I say, I’m still working on it.

To make more loving choices as a leader is not just about being caring and kind. Sometimes it requires us to be tough, clear, direct, but also letting go of our own need to be right or perfect or in control. It might mean that we have to make the choice to assume that as flawed human beings, those we lead or are led by are just trying their best with the mental, emotional or physical resources they have at the time. To be loving as a leader, acceptance, patience, forgiveness are all tools in our tool kit, just as critical thinking, strategic insight and business acumen are our tools. To be a loving leader doesn’t preclude our rational and cognitive functions, nor does it deny that we all have goals to achieve. It isn’t what we do that will make a difference to mental health in the workplace, it’s the way that we do it.

To find out more about our executive open leadership programmes:

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Senior Leadership Development Programme: Senior executives that lead their organisations successfully through the fourth industrial revolution need a different mindset, skillset and a different approach to leadership than those that prevail in many leaders today.