In my early years of studying of positive psychology, I ran a 6-month program in teaching Character Strengths to grade 8 students. Since I was not a trained teacher, the class teacher sat in with me as I taught.
One day, I had the students take the VIA survey, to help them identify their top strengths so they could use them towards their education and life. Research shows that doing so helps us feel authentic, perform better, and be far be engaged in what we do. As the students were going over their results, there was a racquet back in the classroom amid suppressed giggles and outbursts of laughter. It eventually turned out that the strength of “to love and be loved” was the culprit.
I considered this an ideal opportunity to embark on a class discussion of what the strength really signified, but the class teacher was quite horrified. With a strictness that took me back to my own school years, she reminded me that talk of love at the school was not only inappropriate, it was distracting and detrimental to overall performance.
I wish I had had the “strength of character” to defend a good thing. But at the time, I was an untrained teacher, a novice in my field of positive psychology, and also aware of a certain skepticism that saw love as somewhat corny in academic environments. Today though, I have way more research to dispel this belief, and stand up for what has been called our ‘supreme emotion’.
We grow up with a lop-sided view of true love. We associate it with passion and with hearts on fire. But love is far more multi-dimensional, and way more powerful. Even in romantic relationships, passionate love is but a brief phase in a relationship that grows through companionate love. And this latter is not only different in its expression, but also in its neural underpinnings.
Companionate love is connected to higher regions of the brain that are involved in empathy and compassion. It has the power to build trust, to conquer fear, and to bring out our full potential. It connects us to others, helps us find meaning and makes us truly human. No wonder the Dalai Lama sees compassion as the answer to the world’s problems.
If we are to do our part in transforming the world in meaningful ways, we need to expand our view of love, and appreciate the various dimensions and possibilities of a love ethic. As leaders, we need to encourage it in the workplace and use its power in various situations.
Choose to Engage
Avoidance is a hard-wired strategy that people revert to when faced with conflict. At the same time, working towards a common goal requires the ability to engage with the other, and work towards arriving at a win-win solution. This requires compassionate empathy for it allows us to step out of our position, see the other person’s perspective and widen our repertoire of options. Choosing to engage is indeed an act of love.
Learn to Let Go
In the fast paced and technology driven environments of today’s workplaces, verbal communication, devoid of the non-verbal aspect, can often result in miscommunication. Given that each one of us filters incoming information through our own internal working models, words can fail to communicate intent, and lead to emotional arousal. Instead of reacting in anger, we can be more trusting and give others the benefit of the doubt. Letting go is also an act of love.
Know When to Disengage
Today’s workplaces are also stressful, demanding and competitive. At a more physiological level, we get thrown out of a state of homeostasis, and ready to fight against potential ‘danger’. This can lead to heated and often irrational communication, that can spiral out of control. Recognising the need to disengage in order to center ourselves is an act of love, because it enables others to center themselves before both parties return to a reasonable discussion.
In his book In Over Our Heads developmental psychologist and Harvard professor Robert Kegan talks of the five stages of adult development. If we are to advance in our development and take on the challenges before us, we need to understand, appreciate and encourage the multiple dimensions of a love ethic. And as leaders, we have the power to do so.