Why Leaders Should Make Love The Top Priority

I recently watched an excellent TED talk, which I think you’ll love, too. It’s about why the best leaders make loving employees a higher priority than profit.

Since the talk is only 9 minutes long, and the topic is an important, yet nuanced one, I have interviewed the speaker, Matt Tenney, to give you a deeper exploration of the topic. After you watch the video of Matt’s talk, I think you’ll enjoy my interview with him, which is below.

 1. When you talk about loving employees, you say you’re not talking about a touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy emotional feeling, but rather being concerned about the long-term well-being of team members. Can you give some examples of how leaders can show commitment to an employee’s well-being? 

Some general examples include frequently asking about and seeking out ways that we as leaders can help team members to be happier both at work and at home.

This can include removing obstacles that prevent people from doing their best work, reducing bureaucracy, facilitating skillful communication around problems in the workplace, setting clear boundaries between home and work so that employees don’t feel that they need to be checking emails and texts when they’re not at work, and investing time and resources in helping team members grow both personally and professionally.

A specific and counter intuitive, yet extremely impactful example of being committed to the well-being of team members, is refusing the demands of a customer when those demands create unnecessary negative impacts on the well-being of team members. This is something most, if not all, business leaders can relate to.

We have all dealt with external customers who are extremely demanding, not very grateful, and who create lots of stress for team members. A leader who is truly committed to the well-being of team members as the top priority would have a candid conversation with this customer and let them know that if they do not change their ways, the organization would no longer be able to serve them.

This doesn’t mean that the leader doesn’t love the customer.  The leader could certainly refer that customer to a competitor who would take care of them.

Supporting team members in this way is a powerful demonstration of love and a powerful way to build loyalty with team members. And, I’m confident than in almost all cases, this can actually improve the profitability of the organization. Oftentimes we find that the most difficult customers are the ones with the lowest gross margins, providing the least amount of profit for the company, despite being the most work.

By finding someone else to serve them, we can create a huge synergistic effect that improves business outcomes. This can give us more time to serve the customers that are easy to work with, who are often the ones with higher gross margins, and who provide us with more referrals.

Also, by making the lives of our employees easier, they will be better equipped to serve those customers well.  And, of course, there are side benefits like reducing sick days and improving overall productivity.

2. You share the example of Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines as models of love in action and the success it brings. Why haven’t more leaders and organizations adopted the same approach? What gets in their way? 

There are a lot of reasons that leaders and organizations, especially companies, fail to prioritize people over profit.

In some cases, unfortunately, it’s because owners and senior leaders are greedy and self-serving, and only care about enriching themselves.  However, I think this only true for a small percentage of profit-focused companies.

I believe the vast majority of leaders want to prioritize people over profit, but there are many forces that prevent them from doing it. In the case of most publicly traded companies, leaders face incredible pressure from the board to maximize stock performance.

Unfortunately, most shareholders have no connection to a company other than the stock they own. They’ve never met a single employee in the company they own. Thus, the company is nothing but numbers on an exchange listing to them. As a result, these shareholders generally only care about whether the numbers are going up or down. And, they want them to be going up every quarter.

Thus, most boards hire and incentivize senior leaders based on their abilities to make the numbers go up every quarter. It only takes a bad quarter or two, and leaders start losing their jobs. That type of pressure to hit the numbers in the short term makes it very hard to do the things necessary to create a culture that drives long-term success, which is a people-first culture. However, all leaders face similar pressure to hit the numbers to some degree.  

And, it seems that the bulk of the conditioning all leaders have received most of their lives has been to prioritize winning, or hitting goals, over loving well. This just seems to be what our modern culture values most, especially in the for-profit business world. This conditioning to focus on goals and winning is not easy to overcome, and it hinders our ability to love well.

3. What role does ‘trust’ play in loving your employees? 

Trust is an absolute non-negotiable requirement for loving team members.

If members cannot trust leaders, it is essentially impossible for the leader to consistently have a positive impact on the well-being have team members. There will always be a subtle anxiety present whenever trust is absent. This is going in the complete opposite direction of making a positive impact on well-being.

Also, giving trust away is a powerful way to demonstrate love. When leaders convey unquestionable trust and their team members, those team members are empowered to grow personally and professionally, and to be the best version of themselves.

4. What are the top 3-5 behaviors/actions/strategies you suggest leaders follow to start putting these concepts into practice?

First, and most important, we need to consciously make love the top priority to begin undoing the conditioning that I mentioned earlier.

An easy but effective way to do this is to change one’s job description. This doesn’t mean asking HR to officially rewrite your job description. What it means is just internally, for yourself, rewriting the job description in a way that reflects what’s most important. Most job descriptions start with a description of the responsibilities to the organization.  Instead, I recommend people rewrite their job description so that it starts with this:

“My job is to help the people I work with to thrive: to help them to grow both personally and professionally and to do my best to contribute to their long-term well-being.“

Everything else in the job description would be listed as additional responsibilities. Once the new job description is written, I recommend reading it out loud multiple times every day to gradually undo the conditioning that leads us to believe that achieving the goal and winning are what’s most important.

By reading the new job description out loud multiple times each day, we are telling the brain that loving well is important to us. As a result, we start to see more opportunities to love better, and we’re much more open to opportunities to develop our ability to love better.

It’s kind of like when you buy a new car, or learn a new name, and then, suddenly, you start seeing it or hearing it all over the place. This doesn’t happen because that name or that car just magically multiplied all around you.  It happens because the part of the brain that filters out information we don’t think is important has stopped filtering that information out, and is allowing us to see what we now think is important.

Second, we need to look at the problem of being too busy. Most leaders I’m aware of try to do too many things. Unfortunately, there is a direct, negative correlation between how busy we are and how likely we are to love team members. The busier we are, the less likely we are to love well. This was demonstrated in the now famous Good Samaritan study conducted at Princeton University.

So, I highly recommend taking measures to do less and spend more time just being. For those who think that their productivity will somehow go down, I think you’ll be surprised. I feel very confident that your productivity will increase. Productivity is not a function of how many tasks we complete.  It’s a function of the value we produce.

Doing less helps you to get clearer on what really matters and spend more time doing that. And, of course, the most important example of this is getting clear on the truth that what is most important in life is loving well. By reducing the number of things we do, we are much more likely to love better.

Third, we need to work on the bad habit of being distracted. I would guess that most people spend 90% of their time distracted either by obsessive use of technology or by their own thinking (or both).  This, of course leads to increased anxiety, which makes us much less likely to love well. And, it also means that we’re habitually distracted when we’re interacting with other human beings.  If we are distracted when interacting with others, people don’t feel loved in our presence because they don’t feel as though we are truly there with them. The simplest yet perhaps most tangible way to demonstrate love is to give a person our complete and undivided attention, to be fully present with them.

This is why I’m a huge advocate have engaging in mindfulness training.  With mindfulness training, we can systematically break the habit of being distracted and cultivate a new habit of being mindfully self-aware and fully present. Mindfulness empowers us to consistently embody love.

Matt Tenney is the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule.

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