The “Love” Word at Work

 In Coaching, Culture, Leadership

Love at Work

Love is an exciting word.  We think we know what it is when we see and experience it.  We say it all the time in our personal lives.  We see it on TV and in movies, take Facebook quizzes to find the right one to love, spend millions of dollars each February to express our love.  But love at work, with our colleagues, our direct reports, no way! You’re asking for a visit from HR.

But, Maybe Not

Especially if, as a leader, your behavior is an act of love, if you put love as your motivation, possibly your direct reports and colleagues won’t be so quick to call HR.

The first known use of the word love was before the 12th century and, according to Merriam-Webster, was used to describe a sense or transitive sense.  I remember the first time I fell in love with my wife.  It was an overwhelming sense that I couldn’t hold back anymore, and I had to express my love for her.   This feeling of love, a strong attraction, affection, and tenderness for her remains strong after 20 years of marriage.

Those of you that watched the Superbowl this year were treated with a wonderful commercial from the New York Life Insurance Company.  The commercial discusses that the Ancient Greeks had four words for love. The most admirable is called agápē, that is love as an action.  (see the commercial here)

Leadership and Love

As I’ve transformed over the years as a leader, I’ve always felt love for my direct reports and colleagues.  Yet, I never actually spoke the word to them. Instead, I showed acts of love to demonstrate that I care for them, even if we didn’t get along.

One of the things we talk about when we’re consulting is loving your employees, loving them so much, and wanting what’s best for them that if they are not a fit to love them out of your organization.  The act of love is healthy for both parties involved, and you may even create a stronger bond because of it.

I have also been expressing that the act and art of feedback, that is, giving employees or other feedback can be an act of love.  Unconditionally, wanting wants best for them and sharing where they can improve and where they are making an impact, again, is healthy for both parties involved.  Love like this requires courage.  (see the article “For the Love of Feedback”)


So, interestingly enough, through my network, I was introduced to Matt Tenney, a social entrepreneur and author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons From A Prison, A Monastery, and A Boardroom.

Matt gave a powerful 9-minute TEDx talk on November 1st, entitled, “Why The Best Leaders Make Love The Top Priority.

And, we had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with him to talk about love.

Interview with Matt Tenney

DF:  Is there a difference in the type of love you are talking about and the type of love one might have for a spouse?

MT:  No, but my definition of love is probably different than what most people think of.

Love is not a feeling.  We don’t even have to like a person to love that person.

Love is a verb.  It’s an action.

When we love a person – whether an employee, a family member, a friend, or a stranger – it means that we see the other person’s well-being is just as important as our own, and we behave accordingly.

In the workplace, an employee “feels” loved when the leader (or peer) acts in ways that demonstrate that the employee’s well-being is just as important to them as the leader’s well-being and more important than short-term metrics like quarterly profits.

Furthermore, we need to make sure the team member feels as though her or his well-being is more important to us than how much value that team member creates for the organization (which, ironically, inspires the team member to create much more value).


DF:  How do you break out/down love, are their component parts?  

MT:  There are two general ways leaders can love their team members well.

The first is the easiest, but it still requires making love the top priority.

We need to take time to understand what each team member needs to thrive, both personally and professionally and do as much as possible to help them succeed.

This can include the following:

  •  Frequently showing genuine appreciation for the team member
  •  Ensuring that people have ample time away from work to unplug fully
  •  Helping the team member see the connection between their work and the bigger mission and vision of the organization
  •  Allowing and even encouraging failure
  •  Being willing to sacrifice short-term financial gain, if necessary, to avoid negatively impacting the well-being of team members
  •  Making the personal and professional growth of team members a higher priority than performance (ironically, this helps boost performance significantly)
  •  Empowering team members with as much authority and autonomy as possible

The second general way to demonstrate love is much more difficult but can be even more effective.

We need to interact with employees in ways that make them “feel” love in our presence.

This requires, first and foremost, that we give the team member our presence – our full, undivided attention – when we interact with her or him.

We need to listen more than we talk and ask questions more than we direct.

When team members (or any other person) feel that we are fully present with them, and they feel heard, understood, and accepted, they feel very good (loved) in our presence.  This almost always has a more significant impact than the words we use.


DF:  Feedback = Love, do you agree?  How does a leader do this authentically balancing what’s best for the employee and the business/organization?

MT:   I do agree that feedback equals love if the motivation is right.

I often get pushback on the idea of leading with love as the top priority because people think that leading with love means being soft on performance.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

A leader who loves her team members is much more likely to be concerned with – and able to inspire – peak performance.

Why?  Because she has a different motivation than a leader who is only concerned about how much value is being extracted from the employee.

The leader who makes love the priority wants to help team members be the best version of themselves, not because it’s best for the organization (although that’s a nice side effect).

For a team member to experience high levels of well-being, she or he needs to feel good about the work they’re doing.  If team members feel like they’re mediocre every day, it takes a toll on their self-esteem and their well-being.

A good leader approaches performance from that perspective.  It’s more about how they can help the team member than how they can extract more value from the team member.

This motivation completely changes the dynamic of a performance conversation in a way that the team member can perceive.

As a result, the performance conversation is much more likely to be effective.


DF:  You mentioned that you were very “Type A” and focused purely on results. What occurred during the incarceration that prompted you to make the shift to focusing on people?  

MT:  There were several, individual, profoundly transformative experiences that facilitated the shift from selfish to servant, and there was a gradual transformation that occurred over time.

In the TEDx talk, for the sake of simplicity, since I only had 9-minutes, I was referring to the most impactful transformative experience, which was the most significant.

About one year into my time in confinement, I started learning about and practicing mindfulness.

Within about six months of starting the practice, mindfulness allowed me to realize unconditional happiness in a place that most people would consider among the worst places to be.

I had been learning about the practice principally from monks, people who devote their entire lives to living and training in mindfulness.

Since what they taught was so powerful and useful for me, I decided to adopt as many of the monastic disciplines as possible, and essentially ordained as a novice monk along with a friend who practiced very intensively as well.

The heart of the monastic path is to devote oneself entirely to being of benefit to others and cultivating unconditional love for all people.

The deeper I went along the monastic path, the more I made cultivating love my top priority. This was the gradual transformation I mentioned above.

However, a little more than two years into my time in confinement, there was a particularly powerful and transformative experience that occurred, which is what I referenced in the TEDx talk.

I had been practicing mindfulness very intensively in a solitary setting. During one particular period of practicing mindfulness while sitting still, the ego suddenly dissolved entirely.

I had a very deep insight into the truth that, while conventionally, we are all separate people walking around, the deeper reality is that we are so interconnected, it is virtually impossible to see any real separation between us.

It became so clear why love is the universal truth in our world.

Love is the universal truth because your well-being and my well-being are so profoundly interconnected they’re essentially the same thing. Helping you is helping me.

Having seen this very deeply, it also became clear that there is absolutely nothing more important in this life than to love well, serve others, and spend as much time as is necessary to improve our capacity for loving well and effectively serving others.

Love, and training to love better, have been the top priorities in my life, by far, ever since.


So, let me ask you:

Are you ready to express love through your actions as a leader?  If you already do it, share what you do.

Have you ever felt loved as an employee?  Why do you think love at work gets a bad wrap?

We welcome (and read) all comments and would love to hear about your experience.

Not ready to share openly? That’s okay. Contact us directly at

Also, if you’re a new leader, either to the organization or promoted from an individual contributor role, we recommend you download our ebook here.

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