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We need to talk about emotions at work

10 Dec 2019 By Alison Reynolds

If employers acknowledge love, friendship and forgiveness, they will truly be able to develop their employees, argues Alison Reynolds 

Love, friendship and forgiveness are not often heard in everyday organisational language. Yet love is often the basis on which we join a profession in the first place. Friendship will often determine whether we stay or not. And forgiveness is how we sustain our relationships over time. 

As individuals, love and friendship are fundamental to who we are, shaping us both consciously and subconsciously and understandably taking top spot in life’s priorities. For many, love and friendship are simply the meaning of life – to make the complex matter of living, with all its trials and tribulations, a little easier. So why are these topics conspicuously absent from conversations within the four walls of the organisation, despite the increased focus on wellbeing?

One reason may be that love is subjective and sentimental, and businesses have been founded on the opposite: rationality and objectivity. The rational and objective remain privileged traits in the majority of companies. This shows up in how people connect with their experience – they are far more likely to start a sentence with ‘I think…’ rather than ‘I feel…’ and even less likely to demonstrate an expression of their needs with ‘I would like…’

In recent research, Hult Ashridge Business School asked executives where they focus when executing strategy. Eighty-seven per cent concentrate on the tangible levers – structure, processes and systems – despite knowing that the quality of human interaction will be most critical for success. The quality of our experience when talking to each other, the extent to which we trust and respect each other and how we move on when things go wrong, will determine whether execution happens successfully. 

Philosophers recognise the calling to a profession as ‘agape’ love, a Greco-Christian phrase depicting a type of sacrificial love or duty. Agape love has a moral core rather than an emotional one. We can see this kind of love when people in organisations talk about their purpose: ‘Who are we doing this in service of and why? What meaning does this hold for us?’ 

Agape love is what drives us to create something greater than ourselves, with meaning and purpose for ourselves and others. And despite the pace of change today, this commitment and love for a purpose and meaning is enduring. 

You only have to pick up a biography to see the enormous role friendship plays in our experience of work, yet it is rarely acknowledged in the present. Aristotle considered perfect friendship to be a relationship of virtue and good in which friends love each other for their own sake. Affection, admiration and comradery are important elements of friendship. To be seen and heard for who we are is important for our functioning and wellbeing. 

But it goes further than this. Friendship continues to form and reform our identity. Through the process of interaction with a true friend, we are more likely to accept challenge and be open to change. Friendship is at the heart of learning about ourselves and others. Watching my young daughter, I am reminded that one of the things we do with our earliest friends is play. Not only should we embrace friendship in business, we should reignite the cornerstone of it – play.  

And finally, when we haven’t lived up to our own expectations we need forgiveness. For relationship renewal, we need to forgive ourselves and forgive others. When we work with executive teams, we know the tension can often be traced back to an earlier ‘wrong’ that has gone unspoken. In many cases, it is inherited by those stepping into a role and can be the source of silos and other divisions.  

If we allow love, friendship and forgiveness into the workplace, we will have more opportunity to learn, grow and flourish. 

Alison Reynolds is part of the faculty at Hult Ashridge Business School and is co-author of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader

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