Not an Office Romance: How Love Fits into the Workplace

It's Valentine's Day, the day we celebrate that most supreme of human emotions – love. It's also the day when the rampant commercialization of romantic love steps into overdrive. Regardless of your feelings towards this holiday, it's a perfect time to talk about emotions.

February 14, 2020 3 mins read

While the workplace is not the place to express romantic love, it is a place to share a whole range of positive emotions. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls this “positivity resonance”, a virtuous cycle where behaviours positively build upon each other.

This cycle is how we build better teams at work – we like working with people that we have good experiences with – but it also closely resembles the way lovers describe love. In many ways, love has elements of all positive emotions. From the quieter feelings like contentment, peacefulness and serenity to the energetic emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, wonder and awe; these positive emotions are not only functional but motivate and energize us to behave in specific ways.

Why Emotions Matter

Emotion differs from cognition because it relates to bodily experiences, not just brain function. They ready us to act in the world. In the workplace, how we motivate ourselves and our teams to perform is, in large part, a function of emotion.

Emotions are too complex to fit into a binary positive and negative. Take the so-called negative emotions, for instance. Emotions like fear and anger aren’t necessarily bad for us but are a response to negative circumstances or threats. Anger and fear are a part of our ancient fight or flight mechanism, a response to our environment that enables us to take action.

As a survival mechanism, these emotions have proved very valuable over the millennia. However, the workplace is a different environment. Fight will probably lead to very uncomfortable discussions with HR, while flight could lead to other career problems. Even though a complicated emotion such as envy can seem negative, it can also sometimes be a motivating factor – an ambition to achieve great things or become better than the person of whom we are envious. 

There is a grey area in interpreting emotions but, in this light, emotions that we call positive are generally about creating and seizing opportunities, using the environment to our advantage. Enthusiasm enables us to mobilize and seize an opportunity. Curiosity is about exploring, broadening our opportunities and deepening our understanding of the world. Interest helps us focus on challenging tasks that can be difficult in the short term but rewarding when complete.  

Love in the Workplace

Emotions that take us into the realm of relationships are very closely related to love. If we set aside the romantic and physical side of love, there at least two other elements of love that are relevant for work relationships: nurturant love and affiliative love. Understanding these two types of love will help to improve your team relationships.

Nurturant Love

Nurturant love is supportive and appropriately challenging – a love that is essential for growth. As an adult, this could be a parent-child relationship. In the workplace, this can manifest as mentoring or nurturing another person. It’s taking the time to train and support your team when they are encountering struggles. It’s about sharing your experiences and being empathetic. It’s also protecting your team from unfair criticism, unnecessary scrutiny or even poaching.

Affiliative Love

Affiliative love is appreciative, caring and interested – essential for building bonds. Affiliation is the bonding emotion when we feel connected to another person.  In the workplace, affiliative love is manifest in expressing gratitude for another person, an act of kindness or a job well done. As a form of bonding, this love is demonstrated by showing interest in team members outside of the work they perform. It’s learning what their hobbies are or the names of their family members. And following reciprocity, it’s about sharing interests to help remove that wall between a team leader and member.

On Valentine’s Day, it’s particularly good to remember reciprocity – the giving and taking that is associated with love and relationship building. A strong relationship with your team is critical for workplace success and building resilience. We create safety when we laugh at the same jokes, a funny YouTube video or pet meme.

These little interactions help to develop friendships and relationships, building happy teams that can face challenges.