If you’ve ever worked in technology, you might believe it’s built on a whole lotta colorful 4-letter words, bedrock to a culture that all too frequently believes the best employee is a squeezed employee, that if you’re not sweating it then you sure as heck better make others sweat. It’s an approach to leadership rooted in Theory X, in the belief that if you spare the rod, you spoil the employee, as it were. But my life and work experience turned around when I started using a different four-letter word in the office: love.
Having worked at some of the largest technology companies from Boeing to Amazon to Microsoft, I was surrounded by four-letter words. When you’re surrounded by four-letter words, it’s easy to find yourself yelling them back in some perverse sense of survival — an apocryphal tale of monkeys screaming at each other with a banana atop a ladder all but forgotten. I reached my nadir some years back working on a year-long project; it was supposed to be an exhilarating career-defining opportunity to create an experience that would literally touch some 90 million people the world over, and yet I was approaching emotional and psychological collapse.
The Turning Point
Six months in as I sat on my commute, I spotted an ant crawling on the floor. I began to think about how it was already dead and just did not know it. Thirty minutes from its nest, it was not going to survive this trip. And then I realized I was the ant. Here I was working myself to utter exhaustion behaving in ways unnatural to me, and yet to realize this job had already killed me; I was a dead man walking.
It was then that I made a decision that has changed my career. What if, out of sheer desperate sense of survival, I just acted in a manner consistent with my personal values, no matter how foriegn they would be in the culture I found myself in? What if, instead of swearing a torrent of four-letter words, I told them I loved them? I’m the first to admit it’s not revolutionary, but it was scary as hell. I was electing to be different, choosing to paint myself an outcast.
The Response to Love
My Hail Mary — the decision to damn the consequences by being my authentic self — went as well as you might imagine. But for a small minority, my approach touched them. They thanked me for creating a space for them to feel human, to feel seen if even for a few brief moments. And in that group I found my true vocation which has since every subsequent step of my professional life since, leading to where I’m at today: chief technology officer–or at times, chief therapy officer–at RealSelf.
Between that day and now, I’ve learned a lot about what true love looks like. To tell someone you love them is not some saccharine expression, some emotional crutch just to make each other feel better. Nowadays when I tell a person I love them — and yes, I do say “I love you” to my team quite regularly — it’s because I see them for who they are and are not; I see them unflinchingly without judgement.
I show my love to my people by not shying away from telling them when they fail to meet my expectations, and at the same time I ensure they know what I expect of them so they have the best chance at being successful. To love your team means you will never lie to them, even when the truth will hurt.
How to Incorporate Love Into the Workplace
If you don’t think love is talked about in more austere leadership circles then you’re not reading between the lines hard enough. You need only read Ronald Heifetz and Donlard Laurie’s seminal article first published in January of 1997 titled “The Work of Leadership” on a then radical idea that a leader’s role is to help their teams face changing reality and the distress this generates, not shield them from it by telling them everything will be fine. Where Heifetz and Laurie call this “adaptive change leadership,” I call this love.
Want more proof? Read Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor” where she describes how, in order to empower your team, you must first create an environment of psychological safety. Love. Still not convinced? What about “Crucial Conversations” by K. Patterson et al.? Love. How about T. Bradberry’s “Emotional Intelligence 2.0?” Love. And William Bennett’s “The Book of Virtues?” Love. “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown? Love.
And if none of these convince you, then the cold hard science of the past ten years is abundantly clear: the highest performing teams are built on psychological safety. Look no further than to Google’s Project Aristotle, 2 years surveying 180 teams to discover the five traits that separate high-performing teams from mediocre ones, coming to the singular find: the foundational attribute to high-performing teams is psychological safety. If you’re me, you call that love.
Leadership is fundamentally an act of love. Love is both accepting a person for where they are at, as well as caring enough to tell them what is and, just as importantly, is not working for them. We cannot fix what we do not know about, and shielding our team from the truth is robbing them of the opportunity to be successful. Love replaces judgement with keen observation, and ensures that every interaction, every word, every opportunity builds our team toward being successful. Some four-letters we need less of in our lives. But I’m convinced love is the one four-letter word we need more of. Much, much more of. Not just in our lives, but at work, too. And just for the record, you should not be afraid to say so to your people, not if you truly love them.