Real Leaders

Building a Love-based Work Culture: Why Aspiration Outperforms Desperation

Business culture starts at the top, and it has a profound effect on everything from employee engagement and customer satisfaction to long-term performance.

But according to a recent Gallup report on the State of the American Workplace, 70 percent of employees in the workforce are disengaged, and 87 percent feel emotionally disconnected from their workplaces.

Whether you’re leading a small team or running a global enterprise, you are setting the emotional tone for your organization. In fact, it’s one of the most important roles a leader plays.

So what would happen if you based your culture on love?

Love means belonging and psychological safety

Talking about love in the context of business may feel odd — even uncomfortable — but more and more leaders are making the connection between emotionally safe (i.e. loving) environments and measurable success.

Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson is one such leader, recently revealing in an interview that his employees — not his customers — are the company’s highest priority. Branson explains, “It should go without saying, if the person who works at your company is 100 percent proud of the brand and you give them the tools to do a good job and they are treated well, they’re going to be happy.”

That sense of happiness occurs in when employees feel safe — even loved. A recent Google study to identify how to create the “perfect team” found that the single most important dynamic in an effective team was psychological safety.

This doesn’t surprise me. When team members feel safe enough to admit mistakes, partner and take on new roles, they are far more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates. Psychological safety on teams allows for growth mindsets that can play with ideas, collaborate and iterate off others, and lets the team either fail fast or evolve into something more powerful.

A tale of two cultures

According to Louis Gagnon, advisor to investment fund TPG and a former senior executive with Amazon, a famously intense workplace, cultures can be driven either by desperation or by aspiration. In Gagnon’s experience, a culture can either foster or hinder an organization. 

“As a leader, you need all of your team’s energy to be mobilized, right here and right now,” Gagnon says. “For that to happen, you need them to do more than just go through the motions, you need them to use all of their creativity and energy in the moment. That doesn’t come out of fear, that comes out of love. That comes out of ‘I want to give,’ not ‘I want to protect.’”

Underlying desperation-driven cultures is a fear of losing our job, promotion, bonus, status, or privileges. It’s that powerfully human terror of being judged inadequate or getting rejected. These cultures encourage insecurity, and as a result, team dynamics are closed, driven by (sometimes hidden) agendas and politics.

In these environments, employees are in survival mode rather than creating and moving toward the future, and projects need to be tightly managed with strict accountability. It’s easier for employees to just “chug along,” rather than sticking their necks out with a new idea.

Love wins

Aspirational, love-based cultures, on the other hand, are grounded in a desire to make great things, to feel one belongs, and to be part of something bigger than oneself. This type of culture drives authenticity and explicitly encourages the kind of risky behavior that leads to big break-throughs.

Gagnon often tells his team, “Don’t meet your goals all the time, because it means you’re not stretching. You own success. I own failure.” This type of psychological safety net can allow us to lean into the uncertainty necessary for the adaptation, innovation and risk.

Global humanitarian and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has developed a network model rooted in an aspirational, love-based culture. Sri Sri has built one of the largest growing global networks of inspired volunteers, a pipeline of tens of thousands of fresh and dynamic leaders committed to social change. His model of engagement is less about the perfection of outcomes and more about growing his leaders’ capacities to think big about solving the challenges they face in their communities and their work. This culture creates a safe space to learn and respond to their mistakes, which encourages experimentation and innovation.

“Money is supposed to bring us comfort, but if it becomes the cause of insecurity, and you don’t even trust your close ones, then we’ve gone down the wrong track. Greed has no end. There is a joy in getting, but the joy in giving is a more mature joy.” In a story about Alexander the Great, Sri Sri shares “all that you do for gold will not satisfy your hunger. The hunger can only be satisfied through wisdom and love.”

Added benefits of a love-based culture

For any organization, culture is what attracts and keeps talent. A desperation-driven culture attracts second-rate talent because playing it safe is implicitly encouraged. And great people in those cultures typically don’t last because the growth opportunities they seek are elsewhere, that is, in the kind of love-driven culture that attracts and retains the best talent by promoting strong feelings of self and collective achievement.

But culture’s impact goes beyond talent. Culture can permeate management style, processes and vital interactions with customers and suppliers. Love-based cultures create people who are there to connect both with the team and with the organization’s mission — and that’s the kind of commitment that drives sustainable results.


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