Leading with love

Leadership  Relationships
05 April, 2021

We all receive care in different ways. In order nurture their teams, leaders must learn to speak multiple ‘love languages’.

‘Love’ isn’t often said in conjunction with ‘leadership’. We feel comfortable saying we love our family and friends, but hesitate to use the word when it comes to our team members. Yet, if you think about it, don’t leaders want the very best for their employees? To help them grow and to ensure their wellbeing? When you put these things together, they add up to a strong sense of affection and care – which, in fact, is the meaning of love!

Based on decades of research, organisational behaviour experts Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have found that good leaders play the role of ‘nourishers’. They cultivate a nurturing work environment filled with positive emotions like joy, purposefulness and pride, in which people can thrive and deliver their best work. These loving leaders focus on relationships and building healthy emotional equations with their employees.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have toxic leaders who disrespect or emotionally neglect their team members, creating a space that’s rife with negativity. In such unhealthy surroundings, employees become depleted (rather than energised) and discouraged (rather than motivated).

So, this week, my message focuses on the love languages of leaders. In what ways can you express care towards your team members? How can you make them feel valued and appreciated, enabling them to tap their full potential and perform at a better level?

In his 1992 book, The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman introduced millions of readers to the concept of love languages. A person’s love language is basically their preferred mode of giving and receiving affection. If you’ve ever felt like you and your partner are on contrasting wavelengths, that may be because you each have a different primary love language. When you take the time to discover the other person’s love language, you can show affection in ways that resonate with them. Chapman identifies five key love languages among couples:

  • words of affirmation
  • acts of service
  • quality time
  • physical touch
  • gifts

Love languages at the workplace

Even with the best of intentions, leaders may find themselves wondering how to express care in ways that are appropriate and effective. Try to look at it from your team’s point of view. How do they like to be nurtured at the workplace?

Remember, team members will have varying emotional needs. For example, some people blossom when they receive concentrated quality time with their leader. Others may do better with a more hands-off approach, or prefer to receive care in the form of growth opportunities. It’s important for leaders to learn which love languages are most meaningful for individual team members. David Hassel, CEO of 15Five, elaborates:

One of the best ways to discover how others prefer to be acknowledged and recognized is to practice experimentation and observation. For example, try taking your staff out for a one-on-one lunch once month. Observe the impact of your gesture – did they respond positively? Did they seem happier? Did you notice an improvement in their work? Did they pass on the gesture by doing something kind for a coworker? These are all indications of how effective that method of appreciation was.

Drawing on Chapman’s ideas, here are five love languages through which leaders can demonstrate care towards their team members:

1. Appreciation.

Mark Twain famously said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” Receiving recognition speaks to a vast majority of people. When our work is noticed and celebrated, we feel seen and valued. Unfortunately, traditional leadership is often more focused on criticism. While correcting errors and driving improvement are integral components of leading people, it’s equally vital to give credit where it is due. Be generous, authentic and regular with your praise. Don’t wait for end-of-year reviews or awards ceremonies to show appreciation – make it part and parcel of your day-to-day leadership. Even smaller milestones and personal growth deserve to be acknowledged.

2. Trust and autonomy.

Most leaders are already familiar with the crucial role played by trust. When you explicitly affirm your belief in people, they tend to flourish. This is because trust is one of the most potent nurturing forces in the world. Of course, it’s not enough to just talk about it – you must also demonstrate it in tangible terms. When you provide your team members with autonomy, you send a positive message: “I believe in your capability. I trust you enough to let you handle this on your own. You can do this.” What a powerful sentiment! In contrast, micro-managing your employees signals lack of faith, which can be intensely demoralising.

3. Professional development.

Investing time and energy in the skills and careers of your team members is a core leadership love language. Driven by an intense focus on results, leaders can sometimes spend too much time on what they’re getting out of employees – and too little time on what they’re putting in. The moment you become a leader, you make a commitment to your team members – that you will guide them and help them to harness their full potential. For some, this may come in the form of one-on-one coaching and mentorship. For others, it could mean gaining access to new tools. For yet others, being nominated for a training workshop or executive learning course could mean the world.

There are also certain employees for whom growth is as necessary as breathing: they need opportunities to push themselves. Here, leaders must adopt a love language centred around challenge and growth. Set stretch goals and open doors that allow ambitious team members to rise within the ranks of the organisation. Not only will you retain their talent but also be rewarded with their loyalty.

4. Safety and security.

We feel safest with the people who truly love us. In today’s world, it is imperative for leaders to master the language of psychological security. Have you created an environment in which your team members can bring their whole selves to work, speak up freely and go about their work without fear? Disrespect, intimidation and blame games make a workplace feel unsafe and unwelcoming. Loving leaders build a culture in which everyone feels safe and included. This also means looking out for team members and getting down in the trenches with them when things go wrong. As Eric Lau points out in his piece in Leaderonomics:

Good leaders must be able to stand alongside with their teams in good times and in bad times. When the team goes through the storms, a good leader must be able to say, “It’s okay. I have your back. Let’s work this out together.” 

5. Forgiveness.

While reprimands are common enough, forgiveness remains an underappreciated love language among leaders. Caring for people means being able to forgive their errors and move on. When leaders hold grudges, give the cold shoulder or simply fail to verbalise their forgiveness, team members keep carrying around their guilt, fear and insecurity – all negative emotions that impede wellbeing and performance. Offering forgiveness is a powerful way to signal closure, restore trust and build up confidence. You could say something like, “We all mess up sometimes. It’s okay, consider it forgiven. Let’s move ahead.” Simple words with a big impact.

The other side of the coin is being able to apologise! As leaders, we make our own mistakes: we may jump to conclusions, fail to provide support or lose our tempers in the heat of the moment. Instead of pretending like nothing ever happened, why not own the fact that we are human? Loving leaders have the ability to put ego aside, admit their shortcomings and say “I’m sorry”.

Knowing your own love language

It can also be helpful for leaders to develop an awareness of their own primary love language. People with the traits and behaviours you prize are a crucial source of energy and motivation for you. Which love languages resonate with you personally? As Stephen Graves explains in his LinkedIn article:

Think of it as a Venn diagram. On the left are “Direct reports that create great results.” On the right are “Direct reports that are easy for me to work with.” In the red section in the middle are people who fill both categories. That’s what we’re looking for.

Remember – your Venn diagram will be unique. This isn’t one size fits all. Your leadership love languages will be different from those of your partners and peers in other companies because the list of possibilities is so vast, and we are individualized people. Do you need five-year forecasters or great pivoters? People you can laugh with or people who are always on time? The possibilities are endless.

It’s high time that we as leaders expand our understanding of ‘love’ and embrace this wonderfully nurturing quality at the workplace. When we show care in ways that make sense to our team members, we communicate to them how deeply they are appreciated and how much we value them as individuals. It is in such an environment that people can truly flourish and achieve great things.


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