Why It’s Time to Take This Four-Letter Word Out of the Corporate Closet

November 6, 2014

By: Jessica Amortegui

Originally posted on Jessica Amortegui’s LinkedIn page

“What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner made the question famously seductive. For many, it struck a truthful cord—in their personal lives at least. But recent research demonstrates the nostalgic phrase also extends into our work lives. In fact, if you have ever said “my boss is killing me”—and studies suggest that nine out of 10 employees have-—then you have been afflicted by the harrowing effects of workplace love.

Most recently, Gallup‘s research found that of the 70 percent of employees whom report not loving their job, the lion’s share claim a “boss from hell” for their discontent. How dire is it? Consider this: 65 percent of respondents said a better boss would make them happier; only 35 percent said a pay raise would do the same. To many, it probably comes as little surprise that a good boss can affect your happiness. But what if someone told you that a good boss is a matter of life and death?

It turns out they are. Swedish researchers from the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Karolinska Institute, and the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University, collected three years’ worth of health data for over 3,000 employees. They gave the workers a battery of medical tests and a lengthy questionnaire to rate their bosses. They then amassed ten years of medical history on the subjects in order to assess the long-term effects their managers had on their health.

Over the 10-year period, the employees who described their bosses as inconsiderate, aloof, and withdrawn had a 25 percent increased risk of heart attack. This was after controlling for education, income, smoking, exercise, BMI (Body Mass Index), blood fats, and diabetes. Sadly, the longer an employee worked for a bad boss, the more likely the worker was to have a heart attack. If they had worked for that manager for four years or more, their risk increased by a whopping 60 percent. And for those employees who reported liking their bosses? Their hearts fared better than average. They were 40 percent less likely to suffer heart attacks than the general population.

The study make for a compelling case on two fronts. First, if you don’t like your boss, you can deem it official: your boss just may—literally—be killing you. Secondly, if you are a manager, or aspire to become one, the research underscores the immense responsibility that comes along with the position. Your role is not solely to nurture the talent, skill, and potential of others. What truly separates the good managers from the not- so-good ones is the ability to nourish and protect the hearts of others.

When we think of matters of the heart, it is hard steer away from the word love. Nonetheless, the word love, and emotions in general, have been noticeably absent from research on work life for nearly 75 years. Somewhere along the line, talking about love was deemed “unprofessional.” This is because love is largely referenced through the lens of a big “L.” But, whether you are blinded by the strength of romantic love or are able to see its varietal forms—from parental to platonic—is irrelevant, according to Barbara Fredrickson, leading positive emotion researcher and author of Love 2.0. Fredrickson suggests that for whatever definition of love you subscribe to, your heart subscribes to just one: Love is a micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another human being. And, as it turns out, when workers are encouraged to express these small micro-moments of love, our workplaces reap disproportionately large paybacks.

Recent studies conducted by Sigal Barsade, professor of management at the Wharton School, and Mandy O’Neill, professor at George Mason University School of Management, demonstrate the compelling link between love and positive work outcomes. Their research found that people who worked in a culture where they felt free to express love were more satisfied with their jobs, committed to the organization, and accountable for their performance. They also displayed greater levels of teamwork and were less likely to suffer from burnout.

For a soft and squishy word such as love, these are hard, evidence-based outcomes—outcomes that could sway many managers to raise a brow. Except for the entrenched fear that expressing love comes at an expense to one’s perceived competence. Social Psychologist and Harvard Business School Professor Amy J. C. Cuddy has researched this topic extensively. Cuddy finds that while most leaders today tend to emphasize their strength, competence, and credentials in the workplace, this is the exact wrong approach. The reason is simple. When we decide whom to respect, trust and follow, we are not wooed by how strong they are (their skill, capability, or competence). Rather, we look at how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness).

According to Cuddy, leaders who project strength before love actually drive others away. This is a result of our evolutionary neural wiring. Strength and power, in the absence of love, provokes fear. This, in turn, activates a fight-or -flight response. With our basic feelings of safety compromised, a predictable human response ensues: we clam up and turn hyper-vigilant about protecting ourselves and our personal interests. Remarkably, love activates the opposing neural circuitry, known as the calm-and-connect response. The essence of love is that it makes us feel safe. And, as recent findings from neuroscience have demonstrated, safety is a magical elixir to build greater levels of trust.

The biochemistry of love has uncovered dramatic new evidence into the link between trust and a chemical called oxytocin, nicknamed by some the “love hormone.” Over the past decade, oxytocin has been studied extensively by Paul Zak, professor of economics and the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Zak has conducted multiple laboratory studies showing that when someone’s level of oxytocin goes up, he or she becomes significantly more trusting of others. The surprising finding in these studies is that these effects are bi-directional. In other words, when a person extends himself to another in a trusting way, the person being trusted experiences a surge in oxytocin as well. The result is a fortuitous upward spiral of increasingly trustworthy behavior.

In one of Zak’s most popular studies, synthetic oxytocin was sprayed into subjects’ nasal passages—a way to get it directly into their brains. Isolating the effects of oxytocin proved to yield much more than a mediocre rise in trusting behavior. Trust skyrocketed by a staggering 44 percent. Given Zak’s research that trust begets even more trust, you can imagine the ripple effect that stems from this initial surge. And, if you can imagine that, then you can imagine a workplace where the level of trust you have with a boss or co-workers nearly doubles by the expression of a fleeting, albeit genuine, micro-moment of love (a genuine smile, a heartfelt “are you okay?” or hug of affection). In these strikingly simple and tender moments you become twice as trusting of others and they are twice as trusting as you.

With oxytocin’s role in love, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that increased exposure also leads to greater heart health. The beauty of this finding is that it brings the case for workplace love full circle. When managers express micro-moments of love they can’t help but create a gravitational force that draws others in. The orbit of safety activates followers’ calm-and-connect response. This, in turn, leads to unprecedented levels of trust. And, when trust is present, others fear less and love more. With more love pumping through our bloods and brains, oxytocin levels spike and love’s contagion effect takes hold. This, in turn, creates a ripple effect of love in our workplaces. The culture of love nourishes employees’ hearts which, as we now know, saves lives.

This is the reason—in the eponymous words of Tina Turner—the question reverberating in your head holds a clear-cut answer. When it comes to the workplace, love— actually— has quite a bit to do with it.

Jessica Amortegui is Director of Global Talent Development at VMware