Operationalizing Love: Building loving organizations

Port Douglas, Australia — Photo by author

Work is love made visible — Kahlil Gibran

Nothing becomes real unless you practice it — Thich Nhat Hahn

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I’m told that the American psychiatrist Scott Peck said “love is a behavior, not a feeling.” I’ll leave it to the philosophers and poets to argue whether this is true. For me there is a practical truth in it, a truth I can act on and that organizations can act on. I’ve learned that organizations can be built to operate from love — to operationalize love.

Love, of course, can be defined in many ways. The story of humanity throughout the millennia is, in part, us telling the story of love. Ultimately, however, I think of love as a decision to commit to another through how I am and what I do. When I define love this way I can be accountable to it. Love is not a feeling that mysteriously comes and goes (although that might happen), it is a way of being and acting. When I decide to love someone, whether romantically, platonically, or professionally, I decide to hold them in my highest regard and to act unconditionally in their service.

This simple choice can be enormously hard. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I don’t know the best thing to do and many times I don’t have the courage to do it. Often what I think is true, helpful, or kind turns out not to be. Knowing the path and walking the path are quite different.

Yet the path is also clear. A decision to love is a commitment to be honest. It means having the difficult conversation. It may mean deciding to stay together or to separate. It means working at something without knowing the outcome. It sometimes requires cutting through a Gordian knot with the sword of compassion.

The decision to love is also a paradox because one is committing to the person as they really are and to their highest potential — unconditionally accepting and valuing what is while also serving what wants to be. In some traditions this is expressed as “I love you just the way you are, and we have a lot of work to do.” This is essential in developmental work: to start honestly where we are and simultaneously to work to see and unlock the potential that could be. You may have had a teacher or mentor that helped shape your life by doing this for you.

Organizations can do this for their people. Organizations can demonstrate love through their operations by behaving in a way that commits to not only what is, but to what could be. It can, for example, use practices to honestly see both the organization’s and each person’s current reality as well as understanding their unrealized potential. From this context, it can work to decide what actions would serve both the organization and the people so that there is no tradeoff between them. The process of making these decisions can be built into daily operational routines. This daily discernment process forms the basis of how to act from a loving commitment.

The Decurion Corporation operates as a Deliberately Developmental Organization (DDO) which at its core comes from love. One of Decurion’s businesses, for example, is Hollybrook Senior Living, an assisted living facility. We are building this business as a DDO with its own unique purpose: to provide love in the context of affordable care. This is not an abstract, hang-on-the-wall purpose, but a practical guide for how to navigate our daily decisions with internal care members, care member’s families, residents, residents’ families, as well as the business itself. How should we deal with the daily reality of loneliness, pain, disconnection, making ends meet, and death and, at the same time, work on the reality and potential of the business by considering operational efficiency, effectiveness, profitability, and strategic alignment? What daily decisions honestly take all of these into account? How can we understand them until options emerge that aren’t tradeoffs? These are the questions poised throughout the day with both front-line workers and managers alike to prepare them to make thousands of decisions large and small.

Why talk about love, particularly in a work setting? For me the answer is in the direct authenticity of the word. You don’t have to call it love, but that’s what is it when an organization makes such deep a commitment to someone or something. Other Decurion businesses are more comfortable with terms like care and respect — the behavior, however, is easy to recognize as love.

Operationalizing love is not something you do to have better outcomes, it is an organizational choice about who and how you want to be. It is not a feel-good way of operating. While there certainly are moments of connection and joy, the predominate theme is of being out of our comfort zone shoulder-to-shoulder with others who are deciding to face the reality of life authentically and courageously. For me there is a direct realness to being this way at work that, now that I’ve experienced it, I can’t live without.

I think it’s time to be honest about the choices that organizations make about who they are and how they act. It’s not a question whether it’s possible to operationalize love, it’s a questions of whether we have the courage and will to do so.