My client swiftly angled her laptop toward me with an urgent command of “read this!”
Just above the email signature block displaying the sender’s name, title, and company logo was the most unexpected sign-off phrase:
It was an email from an executive at a consulting firm. It was sent to a client we were both advising but on separate topics.
“Can you believe this?” my client exclaimed as a huge grin spread across her face. “Can you actually believe someone said this in a professional email?”
“This is a first for me,” I responded as I glanced over, curious to see her reaction. With a heavy sigh followed by a slight head tilt, she stared back at the laptop screen with a warm, appreciative smile.
While the use of such phrases has traditionally been a faux pas in most professional relationships, it was undeniable that the sentiment made a deep and powerful impact.
Shortly after seeing the shocking “Love you!” email, I started noticing the word “love” being used by employees across a number of my research initiatives when they described emotionally stirring experiences at work.
- “I love the people here,” recounted numerous proud financial services employees expounding on what they enjoy most about working at the firm – that they feel like one big family where everyone looks out for one other.
- “I love my job!” shared a healthcare provider who felt supported at work by colleagues who express gratitude and appreciation.
- “Where’s the love?” asked a frustrated utility worker as she explained how executives weren’t acknowledging the sacrifice of employees who had been pulling double duty for more than a year as leaders struggled to solve a chronic staffing challenge.
And then I started noticing love-centered relationship advice typically found only in the personal realm crossing over into the work realm.
- Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages, has been adapted to the workplace to help leaders decipher individual employees’ preferences for being appreciated and recognized for their contributions.
- Attachment styles, self-compassion, and core beliefs typically used to decode our underlying needs in romantic and family relationships are being used to understand what drives our behavior and performance at work.
- Belonging and safety cues – like those discussed by Culture Code author Dan Coyle, renowned psychological safety expert Amy Edmondson, relationship expert Esther Perel, and researchers from the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory, Penn State, and other universities – show a clear match among the requirements for emotionally healthy group bonding both inside and outside of the work realm.
So, while workplace “I love you”s of the Cupid’s arrow type may not be entirely conducive to productive relationships with coworkers and leaders, there’s no denying that a specific brand of love at work can be a valuable asset for galvanizing a group and improving team performance.
After all, each employee is the same human being whether they’re operating in the work realm of their lives, in the personal realm of their lives, or in a blend of both as the thin barrier between the two continues to become ever more permeable.
What they’re looking for in one is likely to carry over to the other. As human beings, we’ve known this all along, but we lost sight of it and got the false impression that our relational needs somehow stop at the start of the workday.
Perhaps thanks in part to the vast disruption caused by the pandemic, we’ve now reimagined our relationship with work and learned to once again honor the innate needs that characterize our own humanness – even in the work realm.
At the core of those work realm needs is the instinctive desire for belonging through connection, protection, and appreciation – experiences typically associated with love in the personal realm.
And that – those little gestures that connect, protect, and appreciate – that is how we say “I love you” at work.
Jessica Walter MS, APR, is an author and advisor who uses behavioral science to help leaders solve their most complex challenges by teaching them an energizing and emotionally healthy style of leadership.
Image by Kelly Sikkema