What can individual contributors do to create a culture of companionate love—comprised of affection, caring, compassion, fondness, and tenderness—particularly if you work somewhere in which management does not seem prone to developing one anytime soon? To answer that question, let’s start with a personal story, one that is very close to my heart.
This past birthday was a big one–the big “4-0”. It came at a tough time for me and my husband, also a professor. We were living in Northern California with our two kids for the year for my sabbatical at University of California Berkeley while flying back and forth to Washington DC to teach required courses at our home institution, George Mason University. I flew home to California on my birthday, exhausted after a busy week of intensive MBA teaching back on the east coast. I had no expectations that there would be any birthday fanfare back home; I was simply grateful to my husband for taking care of the kids and the household while I was out of town teaching.
As I walked up the walkway to our house, I immediately noticed something special outside the front door: a beautiful bouquet of flowers with cheery “Happy Birthday!” balloons attached. Someone had sent me flowers! Who could it be? My parents or my brother and sister-in-law back on the east coast? My godmother in Louisiana? Inside the house, I opened the card: “Dear Mandy, We wish you a happy birthday. 40 is the new 30!! Love, Sigal and Nancy.” It was from two of my former coworkers from University of Pennsylvania, Sigal Barsade and Nancy Rothbard. There was a beautiful card in the mail, too, from another friend I met that year, former Wharton professor (now at University of San Diego), Jennifer Mueller.
The University of Pennsylvania is a huge university and The Wharton School of Business is a large division within it, but these three women and I forged relationships that year and in the subsequent years to be close enough to be called “love” (i.e., companionate love). Almost ten years later, they knew me well enough to know that my 40th birthday was a big deal to me and took the time out of their day to show their caring and affection through a nice card and flowers. These gestures of kindness are exemplars of what companionate love looks like across all organizations I’ve researched: taking the time to listen to inquire about one another’s lives, to show caring by remembering things about each other, and to behave in ways that translate that interpersonal knowledge into action.
To be clear, emotional cultures of companionate love are often not as strong as the gestures and relationships I’ve described here at every level or between every person within an organization; that’s normal. It is, however, something that can start small within or even outside of an organization’s formal boundaries. Emotions are contagious, so it’s ok to start small and observe the affection, caring, and compassion spread. Even something as simple as asking a coworker—genuinely—“how are you?” can have an impact.
In taking a moment to learn a little more about a coworker's life, whatever celebrations and sorrows they might want to share, you are sowing the seeds of a culture of companionate love. And the relationship that it might spark? It could blossom into something that becomes almost like family, extending many years (and birthdays) into the future.