Helena Clayton | The case against love



The case against love

12 Apr 2019, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

As you might know, I’m advocating for love in leadership. And I’m taking a stand for using the word love, and not empathy or compassion, say. In doing that, I also need to be alive to the ways that this is difficult or problematic because 30% of my research respondents said they felt uncomfortable talking about love in the workplace. And rightly so.

Here’s some of what we might have to factor in:

Human ‘stuff’ in the workplace is relatively new

It was only in the 1950’s, with the development of Human Relations Theory that hopes, fears, motivations, anxieties, aspirations all fell into the domain of management. Suddenly, our inner worlds had a legitimate and named place in our work for the first time. We were seen as human beings as well as human doings.

Sounds like an unquestionable good, but not necessarily. At one level, this could be seen a way to control workers and get more out of them through managing and manipulating us. Our private self harnessed into serving the needs of an organisation? Our humanness yolked to organisational effectiveness and efficiency?

Since then our hopes, fears and motivations are generally channelled into so many processes and procedures, usually driven through the HR function, that it’s possible that we have forgotten how it actually feels to have hopes and anxieties really acknowledged and worked with rather than commodified.

Love has gone underground

Bob Marshak says it’s these aspects of our humanness that don’t get talked about in organisations. Our human messiness goes underground and is buried underneath the relentless focus on data and rationality and the ‘business case’. In Covert Process in Organisations, he names several things that are taboo … emotions, fears, hidden agendas. Also aspirations – it’s somehow not acceptable to talk about our hopes and dreams, and what we long for. If it’s true of aspirations, I imagine that the same goes for love, even though it’s not expressly on Marshak’s list. The actor Steve Coogan has said: ‘the edgiest word to use at the moment isn’t fuck, piss or shit. It’s love. That’s what makes people’s buttocks clench’. I imagine Marshak might agree.

It feels that love has gone underground, it’s been banished. And when something is forbidden and not allowed, it usually has a way to come out but not in positive ways. In Jungian terms, we might say that it’s ‘in shadow’ which means it’d been repressed or denied because we’ve come to see them as unacceptable in some way. I wonder what might the consequences be of putting love into exile, of silencing love and not allowing it into our organisations?

That said, things may be slowly changing. I think we are seeing new permission being given to emotions at work – where they are accepted for what they are and not used instrumentally. I have a real sense that there’s more openness to this conversation about love at work than there has been, even a few years ago.

Do you notice this shift too? What does it take to encourage this new conversation, to allow talk of love to take its place in our working world? How might we legitimise love in relation to leadership?

Ill equipped

All of that – the newness of it all – makes us pretty ill equipped as leaders, to really face into feelings, let alone love. The messy and difficult feelings that we all have. We are still very novice and nervous about dealing with them in a work context. And even when we are open to exploring feelings and talking about love, we may lack the skills to do.

I sometimes introduce a group to a Feelings List, a list of about 150 words of emotion. I ask people to run their eye down it and identify which ones they regularly feel and which they are less familiar with, which they identify with and which are totally new to them. Usually people report being familiar with only a small number. That chimes with Brene Brown who, in Dare to Lead, says that her aim is to develop people’s lexicon so they have 30 words of emotion that they are able to use. Thirty. That’s not many, is it? It might indicate how unfamiliar we are with what’s going on for us on the inside. And it certainly indicates how we struggle to articulate and describe it.

I know from my work in organisations that the most dreaded conversations are those where feelings are involved. Which, let’s be honest, is most of them. We’re fearful of our own emotions and of others, we worry about hurting people, don’t know how to deal with anger or tears or withholding. Or love. Here be dragons.

Also, many leaders (thankfully, this is becoming less so these days) who lead some of our big organisations – and also our country – have been through the worst of the UK Boarding School system. According to Joy Shaverein in Boarding School Syndrome, a natural and almost inevitable protection against the trauma of having the childhood attachments severed in this way is to cut ourselves off from these deeply painful feelings. And, as far as I understand it, because of the way we are wired, when we cauterise one set of feelings it has an all-round impact. We can’t choose to suppress one feeling without suppressing all. So, many senior leaders have had to, in order to keep themselves safe and sane, cut themselves off from their natural feelings. Sometimes this is such a clear and powerful act, that the literature uses the term ‘cauterise’. Wow. And while these studies are very specific around the impact of early boarding (around 7-8yrs old) , I imagine a milder version of this might be true for many, many more of us.

Finally, at work, our language is mostly of metrics and data, of processes and arguments for and against. An essential language to speak, of course. But a recent Carnegie UK Trust report by Julia Unwin argues that we need to be bilingual, we need to be fluent in both technical and emotional languages because while each has its own strengths, each is deeply dangerous on its own.

What will it take for us to develop our emotional literacy and get skilled and fluent in talking about our emotions in a business context? How can we develop our capacity to talk about love as part of that?

Love doesn’t belong at work

We increasingly say ‘how come we leave parts of our self at the door, when we come to work?’ And yet we also know that we are always and unavoidably present when we’re at work. All of our many parts and selves. Our irritation, anger and frustration; our jealousy and joy; our shyness or desire for control; our love. They’re all there, every day.

One of my favourite quotes about whether we can bracket off ourselves from our work is ‘try as I might, I am unable to obscure, marginalize or shadow myself … like an annoying jack-in-the-box gone wrong, I do not disappear from sight, even momentarily’.

So it’s a false distinction to separate them. And yet we have and we do. Why?

Feelings and talking about feeling is widely considered the territory of therapy and my research reflects some of that. These comments were about love in the workplace but they could equally apply if had been asking about feelings generally:
· ‘love is generally viewed as weakness and weakness doesn’t belong in the workplace’
· ‘It feels flaky and unprofessional’
· ‘It might undermine what I’m trying to achieve at work’
· It’s ‘too personal and intimate’ and ‘over the line’ of what’s acceptable in the workplace
· That the ‘place for love is firmly at home and not work’

Yet we are hardwired for love and connection, it’s a core human need. So why wouldn’t it be the case that we also need love and connection when we’re at work? And if we’re hardwired for love – if, as all spiritual traditions tell us we ARE love – then it can’t be true that organisations are loveless places, as some would claim? Can it really be true that we create an emotionally sterile environment for between 8-12 hours a day and somehow hold our breath until we get home, to feel love and enact love with others only then. It feels like the 16:8 diet … depriving ourselves of a much needed nutrient for most of the day.

Can this be right? Are we in danger of developing a form of disorder where we limit ourselves – starve ourselves of love – to the extent that we damage ourselves?

Love is private

Kenneth Williams apparently once said: ‘love is the most awful invasion of privacy’. Bringing love into the workplace is seen as an imposition, a threat to that private space. Maybe something like: ‘how dare you want my heart when you already have 10+ hours of my head and hands every day’.

And it’s true, our private non-work sphere is getting more and more eroded – with the company FitBit recording everything I do outside of work; or going home, putting the kids to bed and then opening up the laptop on the sofa and finishing off our day’s work.

As well as the demands of work, our private lives are often very challenging too. Maybe work is seen as a ‘relief zone’ or a refuge away from the undoubtedly difficult feelings that are called up in our private life and so we are doubly sure that we don’t want a working life that’s full of messy, human emotions, including the requirement to bring love into it.

After all, managing feelings has never really been on the leadership syllabus and maybe we are fearful that we can’t do what’s now being asked of us. We didn’t sign up for that. It was never part of the deal. Changing the goalposts. Another ‘how dare you ask that of me now’.

Or maybe we can see through the myriad HR policies that are purported to make our working lives feel better as the instrumental actions that they so often are … ways to make sure we are productive and efficient, that we are doing more with less, that we are being ‘maximised’.

How can we protect what we need to while also being open and willing enough to let others in? How can we be more loving with our colleagues and team and not feel exploited by our workplace?

Confusion about what love means

When I say I’m writing about love, mostly people say ‘but what do you mean by love?’ I have an odd response to that and sometimes experience the question as a form of denial and distancing as well as the genuine curiosity at almost certainly is too. Because I think we know exactly what love is. We know it when someone is loving towards us. And we fully recognise when we have not been loving towards someone.

People often talk next about romantic love and how that’s not fitting for the workplace. Of course it isn’t. But that’s what we’ve come to understand by love these days – the PR machine for love-as-romance has totally done its job.

And the list of words that it could be seem so long and daunting that it seems something we could never achieve for ourselves. Words like brotherly love, affection, good will, benevolence, selfless, unconditional, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, sacrifice, care, empathy, compassion, listening, altruism, generosity, acceptance …that’s a huge list. What should we enact from all of that?

Will I ever be able to define it, pin it down to my own and others’ satisfaction? There’s a summary of what my research respondents said love is here and I’ll write more about that soon but first I want spend more time exploring it getting to know it more intimately.

What do we need to know about love to be able to use the term? How can we define it enough for ourselves so that it can belong in leadership? Should it (can it?) be deconstructed or should we treat it as a mystery?

Messy and unpredictable

When responding to why he felt uncomfortable about love at work one of my survey respondents said it was ‘the fear of what love demands of me’. That’s always really stuck with me.

Our emotions are often described as an unruly animals (chimps, elephants, horses depending on what books you’re reading …) ready to bolt at any time. They need to be tightly reined in because otherwise all hell would break loose. They’re something we need to keep a lid on, to manage, because they are uncontrollable. We seem fearful of emotions and, by extension, love. In the workplace especially they feel like a very real threat. A threat to order and structure, to process and efficiency, to rules and compliance. Love is messy and unpredictable, we think, and not easily tamed or bound within structures. A virus in a controlled lab, able to contaminate whatever it touches?

And dealing with that is hard work. ‘Why talk to anyone when I can get a data dump? ’ asks Gerd Leonhard in Humanity vs Technology. It’s so much more straightforward to deal with the rational. It’s a good question and chimes with whether you think leaders should be more like a warm-blooded mammal or a cold blooded reptile? Leadership through a Bladerunner lens: replicant-passing-as-human – or human?

How do we learn to get comfortable with emotions? And what might it take for us to risk the ambiguity and messiness, the VUCA-ness of love and be willing to see if that could pay off in our organisations? Are you more reptilian or more like a mammal in your leadership?

So, tricky in these and other ways.  With a lot more to explore on this …

In the meantime, I’d really be interested in your response to what I’ve written – what else supports ‘the case against love’? In what other ways is love in organisations problematic?

You can comment here, or on LinkedIn.  Or you can find me on Twitter @HelenaClayton.  Everything’s welcome 🙂

I have a 6 week online programme where a small group of diverse yet like-minded people come together to explore the role love could – or should – play in our organisations, and what that might mean in practice.  Described as bold and soulful and thought provoking, details are here

You can also subscribe to my monthly Newsletter here.

Helena x


  • caron bradshaw

    I love what you’re doing and exploring. I too have wrestled with the word love in the context of work and only recently have become comfortable (mostly!) with saying that I believe my purpose is to bring love into leadership – to try to work in a different way which enables the people I work with to bring themselves wholly to the workplace and be seen and respected for who they are. By truly seeing your staff you are able to play to their strengths and get more out of them (and they get more out of themselves) than even they thought possible. But you also get a huge amount of personal reward and growth because people are more honest with you – they share areas where you could improve and you welcome it (even when it’s uncomfortable). Love breeds honesty and gives you a safe space to be creative and push the boundaries. it’s not fluffy and weak it’s strong and challenging and provocative.

    I personally have felt much more satisfaction in work from seeing who I am as an asset not a deficit to be overcome. I am a loving person – I want to connect deeply. In the years I tried to suppress these aspects of myself, to fit in to traditional (and I believe rather cold) forms of command/control leadership I felt out of flow, disconnected and inadequate. Now I feel confident, capable and connected in all areas of my life (and I think I’m a better mother, friend, partners and colleagues too). Keep up the great work!

    • Helena Clayton

      Thanks Caron, I appreciate the encouragement 🙂 And I really agree with you when you say love isn’t ‘fluffy and weak it’s strong and challenging and provocative’. So true, in my experience.


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