Helena Clayton | OD and Love pt 2



OD and Love pt 2

19 Nov 2019, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

A week or so ago, I met with 30 OD practitioners from the private and public sectors for a workshop to explore the links between OD and Love. It was a rich day of exploration and this (rather long) post shares some of what we spoke about together …

I started off sharing my research about love in leadership including the fact that 94% of respondents said that love was very important in organisations but 30% said they were uncomfortable talking about love at work. We used that as a jumping off point to look at several themes relating to the field of OD and for OD practitioners.

· Most people in the group recognised that there was a lot of (and increasing amounts of) pain and struggle in organisations and that, even when the organisation isn’t directly the cause of that (although it very often is) organisations don’t do very well in acknowledging and supporting people in that suffering. Many people in the room recognised that ‘lovelesness has become the order of the day’ and that ‘work for many people has gone from being a source of pride to a relentless and dehumanising assault on their dignity’ as the relentless drive for efficiency pushes our humanity out. I’ve heard many people say recently how pain-averse and grief-averse we are as a society and I am increasingly exploring how we all could benefit from acknowledging and working with pain and grief more than we do – within and beyond our organisations – and how it is an act of love to do so.

So for us in OD, how can we develop our capacity to sit with and hold space for grief and difficulty? Our own and that of others. How can we turn towards struggle? Unbearable as it might seem, how can doing this help support us through the difficult times ahead?

· My research showed that people feel ‘humans work best in a loving environment’ they see that ‘love is a core human need’ and if that’s the case then we also need it in work. Respondents said ‘love helps us feel safe and when we feel safe we’re able to be ourselves and take risks. We can do what needs to be done rather than what we need to do to keep safe’. This group of OD practitioners also felt strongly that with more love we’d not only be stronger and more resilient and develop great psychological safety and trust between us but we’d also be able to unlock untapped ways of working and being together in our organisations.

What do you imagine might be possible in your organisation, if there were more love present? What are your hopes for your organisation and how might love contribute to making those a reality?

· Picking up that theme of love being problematic in organisations, we explored what blocked us from connecting with love. We talked about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and how the wounds from such seemingly everyday things like poverty and divorce (as well as more acute forms of abuse) can be retriggered by the stress of organisational change; that many of our senior leaders may be suffering from a form of Boarding School Survivor Syndrome if they were ‘early boarders’ as young as 8yrs ; and ways that our vocal, powerful and usually unloving inner critic can keep us believing that we are unloveable and unloving. And, of course, the fact that ‘we can’t be a hurried person as well as a loving person’(1) and in the busy-ness of working life it’s very difficult to find the space for love.

This will apply to us as practitioners too. To what extent are you aware of your own blocks to love? With ‘self as instrument’ in mind, what sort of personal inquiry might you conduct into your own relationship with love?

· Research respondents defined love in the research as care, empathy and compassion as well as deep listening and acceptance. We thought love was all those things and also something more. Something very much more in fact, as we dug beneath ‘acceptance’ and explored what that might involve in practice, in reality. One of my respondents said they were ‘fearful of what love demands of me’ and rightly so. Because if there is any chance that we might get to the ‘unconditional’ part of Carl Rogers’ Unconditional Positive Regard, or ‘value everyone the same’ in the way that John Heron encourages, then we have to overcome a lot in ourselves. We have to do business with the parts of us that are mean or withholding, jealous or cold. Unloving. We have to let go of the fact that x hurt me some time ago and find a way to love them nevertheless. Let go of the fact that y’s beliefs are so abhorrent to me while at the same time finding a connection to love. We have to forgive someone’s unforgivable behaviour and see the person behind the actions. As the therapist Erich Fromm pointed out, love is a choice and it’s no achievement to love one friends or family. The achievement is loving those who are not like us, who have hurt us or who we disagree with.

So who is the person you are choosing not to love? How willing are you to let go of your tightly held views – the ways in which you are convinced you are right – in order to love?

· Following this, we used ‘radical’ to describe love because it takes a radical commitment to feel love, let alone explicitly bring love into our work. Radical meaning root, fundamental, core, extreme. Radical is relevant to OD practitioners in several ways not least through the work of Deborah Meyerson who invites change agents to be ‘tempered radicals’, holding a bold, challenging and counter-cultural vision for the organisation and yet working with stealth, playing a long game but never losing sight of the goal.

How could developing a more loving organisation be a worthwhile (and audacious) goal to aim for? What might be your explicit and also guerrilla tactics to make that come about?

· We then explored how the role of OD and of OD practitioners is to bring and be difference. What does the system not have – or not have enough of – and how we can either bring that it in or model it ourselves? We recognised that this comes with some risk. Naomi Stanford (2) has said that it is ‘no small difficulty’ to find the right balance between being a radical and looking like a fool, talking about the tricky balance of being different yet not too different.

What difference do you bring? To what extent are you brave enough to take a stand for love? Could you bear to risk rejection on behalf of love? How much are you willing to risk for love?

· And we explored our role more broadly. If ‘one has to bear in mind the backdrop against which OD entered Western society, where racism, the aftermath of Nazi Germany, the massacre of Jews and the breakup of community all played a major role in organisation and community’(3) then what do we need to wake up to today? Perhaps the rise of populism and the possibility of fascism; the climate emergency and the prospect of societal collapse; and the increasing fragmentation and separation that we have from each other. If we believe that ‘we can’t allow cultural codes to emerge by accident’ (4) don’t we have a responsibility, we asked, to really get informed about the bigger picture and build our interventions so that they both directly and indirectly respond to the big challenges of our time.

In OD, don’t we have a particular responsibility, given our origin story, to really own our social and global responsibility? If not us, who? To what extent does your work connect us with global events?

· We explored another aspect of love directly relevant for OD practitioners . Usually love is associated with the softer qualities of nurture and compassion. But a vital and often ignored aspect of love is anger – righteous anger – in response to someone crossing a boundary of some sort. This is love that says ‘no’ and ‘this is not ok’ as a way to protect what matters to us most. Our models here are ancient and also relevant today and include Jung’s Warrior archetype and the Goddess Kali, both of which use a sword as a way to cut through what gets in the way of what matters most. This can include destruction but only for the purpose of protecting our connection with love. We can see this in the work of Extinction Rebellion, we thought, as they hold their deep love for life and the planet with a commitment to break the law in order to get their voice heard. The group wondered if this could be dialled up in OD. We are often felt to be in service of the organisation (often rightly) but may not often enough make our voices heard and take a stand for something that matters.

What matters to you? Do you take a stand for it? What are you like with saying NO? How might you and your clients benefit from harnessing your righteous anger?

As the day came to close, what might we do, we asked ourselves. What might we start doing tomorrow to bring this conversation to life in our work? The answers from this group were:

· Personally commit to love. If it means something to you, if you think it matters, then take a stand for it yourself. Set an intention to ‘be more love’. Let love be your guiding principle in your leadership and your OD work. We heard from one participant how making that commitment really made a difference to how she showed up in her leadership role and other people noticed the difference immediately.
· Find a way to bring the word love into conversations. Start conversations about love. Surface the word. If it is taboo, then speaking about it can only be a good thing.
· Through that approach, learn who also might be open in your organisation to exploring a more loving way to work, do business, relate to each other. Start a piece of action-research with like minded people, run this research survey in your own organisation.
· If as human beings we are hard wired for love – if we ARE love – then organisations can’t be loveless. So find the examples of love in your organisation and amplify them, build on them, share them. And when you find them, be bold and call it love.
· Look at all your OD interventions and ask ‘where is the love in this?’ and ‘how could this piece of work include more opportunities for love?’ Most models and frameworks that inform our practice don’t seem to have space for human connection or for much approaching love. So adapt them to suit your (loving) purpose.
· Speak the truth. If love also allows for righteous anger, then ‘speaking truth to power’ is a form of love. Be courageous enough to call out unkindness or policies and practices that are unloving. Get clear on what matters to you and take a stand for it.

As I say, it was a cracking day 🙂
Helena x

I have a monthly Newsletter with blogs, book reviews etc about love and leadership – that also lets you know when I have events coming up. You can subscribe here. There’s more writing on my Blog Pages and you can always find me on Twitter using @HelenaClayton.


The workshop was part of the OD Network Europe calendar of events. If you’re not a member, do consider joining not least because they have a great Conference coming up in April on the theme of disruption.

You can download a copy of the research report here (no email data capture involved). Did I tell you already that it took first prize in the Roffey Park Research competition 😊 Details of all references in this post are at the back of this report other than:

(1) From a podcast by US pastor, John Mark Comer

(2) From OD specialist Naomi Stanford, a quote I collected from something she wrote some time ago.

(3) Cheung-Judge M-Y and Holbeche, L (2015) Organisation Development: a Practitioners Guide for OD and HR, Kogan Page

(4) Anderson, L (2019) Metamodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World, Bildung


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