A Culture's Journey to Love


I believe in a radical thought. That we as human beings are wired for loving connection and that this is the driving force behind all of our cultural interactions. Each of us asks the question, “Am I loved?” And when we come together into cultures, we seek to answer this question in the faces, actions and words of others. We collectively in cultures seek to answer this question. When I ask this question of individuals, they universally say yes to this proposition for themselves as individuals. However, when I introduce this idea into business cultures, I sometimes get pushback. They say, “No, business is not about love.” Or “No, love has no place in these walls,” and they list the reasons. But this radical thought is indeed true, and it is the key to human thriving. This idea about love and culture is backed by endless empirical studies that find that the firms that embrace this premise thrive, and actually outperform the others. So why do we struggle bringing this key concept if true into the business world?


Does love have a place in business?

Often this pushback about business and love connection is grounded in real world experience. I, like others, have experienced cultures that are just the opposite of this. They are not focused on loving connection. They are focused on small things like money, accomplishment, and control. Someone who is fresh from a culture not focused on love is right to doubt, yet even these cultures and our feelings towards them bear out that there is something not right about these cultures. An aching in our hearts that Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would call our “will to meaning,” that is the core of who we are. Unless that “will to meaning” is fit with the key that opens the heart to life, our emotions cry out against it. Our emotions, both good ones and bad ones, are at their core a cry to return to what scientists call homeostasis, or in plain language, peace. We will find no peace until we find cultures based on love in our own hearts first and importantly in the organizations that we lead. Where and how we are leading can be illustrated by these five cultures.


How to Measure Love?

The five cultures are all measured by three components of love that I have written more about in my book titled “The Ultimate Why”. They are, in brief, Knowing, where we know and understand ourselves and others. Knowing encompasses our past realities of our values, our personality traits and strengths, and our stories. The next is Emotional Engagement, this encompasses healthy emotional exchange in our own hearts and with others. This is where we can identify the thoughts giving rise to bodily feelings, and be flexible about how we respond. Emotional Engagement is our life in the present and it is the most difficult piece of this journey and few pass it and move on to Promise. Promise is our future commitments and actions. Our promises to ourselves and others should be based on values and should be explicitly made. These are the three components of a loving connecting culture. I use the acronym K-EE-P as a shorthand to reference them in the rest of this article. Let's look at the five cultures in light of these measures.


1. Pre-Culture

This is where norms and values are not established collectively. Often in these environments, strong pushy wills surface and rule by fear and power, only to be challenged by others. It is a very toxic environment with no K-EE-P. This is the “Lord of the Flies” scenario. This type of culture is what we find in street gangs, prisons, and unfortunately in some businesses where no effort to define norms and behaviors other than “Do what I say” prevails.


2. Commodity Culture

This is a transactional culture where people and labor and money are treated like commodities. There is the beginning of promise here where an explicit transaction is laid out. An agreement to give you money for your labor. It is generally made clear that no emotions will be tolerated and I could care less who you are as long as you produce the agreed-upon output. You can be fired and replaced like any cog in the machinery, and you feel it.


3. Duty Culture

This builds on the commodity promise, and adds a slight emotional engagement component. Duty and honor are added to the paycheck. In these environments the norms are set against self knowings and personal emotional expression beyond doing your duty. We’ll give you honor and respect that you are a person and not a cog. There is a loyalty to the individuals and the business in these exchanges and a safety in the simplicity of the norms and behaviors. Yet it is not an innovative place where most would thrive, it's more like a survivable grind. You don’t live for this kind of work, you do it out of a sense of obligation.


4. Achievement Culture

This is where we begin to engage emotions a bit more, especially on the positive side. Individuals’ skills are known and developed, but not much beyond skills. We want you to perform so we will emotionally encourage you with hype and award achievements of teams and individuals. We will set explicit promises of outcomes and goals. Values are discussed as a means to the output which is the real goal of the culture. People are measured and affirmed based on performance. The strong achievers will rise up and often push down others below them into the duty culture. This culture has achievers innovating, and is where most of America is. Gallup sees 30% being engaged in most cultures and these are usually the achievers. The rest of those in the achievement culture slog along at the duty level and are disengaged.


5. Love Culture

This culture builds intentionally on the three areas of love. They build on them on three human levels of the self, the team and the community the organization serves. It builds on the three temporal levels of Knowing (past), Emotional Engagement (present), and Promise (future). Fueled by loving connection, all three human levels are treated as valuable. Each human group says YES to the question, “Am I loved?” and therefore operates as fully alive people thriving in who they are and what they do. They are known for their strengths, traits, and stories, through intentional time spent focused on these in the culture. Emotional Engagement skills are developed so that all can express their thoughts and feelings and use this as information about the present. This level is the most neglected level and is the most difficult to pass through to the final expression of love, Promise. When we have emotional flexibility, we can then pivot towards values-based actions in the future. All of our future actions are not built on emotional reactivity or rigidity but on values. The supreme value from which all values and actions flow is love. These cultures are focused on how they can change the world to look like the values they espouse. They are not just making products or services. They are shaping the world to become the values they believe in.


Love Culture Still too Far Out?

If you are “feeling” something in your gut that says “This won’t fly where I work,” likely it is because other powerful influencers, either bosses or groups of employees you know, are in lower levels of culture. A duty culture will be uncomfortable with this language because it only understands respect and honor, and its norms shut down such expressions as weak. Some in the achiever level don’t yet see where values-based actions can take them beyond their personal achievement. Achievers can thing it would be a waste of time to spend on investing in people, when they have goals and outcomes here to focus on, so they don’t talk of love only performance. So yes, language like love will be too much when starting on this for some in your culture, yet you personally are responding to this with a yes in your heart. That is because no culture is completely uniform, there are individuals from all five cultures inside your organization. Studies show that each leader creates their own subculture. There is more variance, according to studies, of teams within a company than from company to company. So, the method is to begin to work with teams and leaders where they are and to slowly elevate them to where they see the ideal culture. There are processes that can help each cultural level develop the necessary skills and understanding to move up the ladder of cultures in a healthy way.


Starting with the Individual

This is why it is critical to not only seek change from the top down but from the bottom up. This means that we start the process using language that your teams and individuals can digest and understand. Then building skills into each of the three temporal levels of KEEP individuals will begin to attune to the power that this builds into their lives at work and home. This takes an investment of time and energy. This investment is real and in the end it produces an abundant harvest for all involved. Step-by-step your leaders and culture will move towards that ideal culture that answers YES to the question we are all asking in every relationship we have, “Am I loved?” Those who walk this planet with a YES in their hearts are the giants of this world. We have known them, they are the true heroes that we truly honor. Lincoln, Washington, MLK, Gandhi, Billy Graham, or your grandparents, mom or dad. In life, many merely survive, few achieve, my hope is that we all actually learn to love and thrive.


(Adapted in part from Tribal Leadership by John King. They present five similar cultures based on slightly different criteria.)

Photo byVlad BagacianonUnsplash


Ultimate Why 

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Moberly, MO 65270

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