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What therapy + an obsession with "love books" have taught me about leadership

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Valentine’s Day – love it or hate it, I’m using it as an excuse to write about two seemingly unrelated topics – leadership and love - that I have spent a LOT of time thinking, reading and learning about.

Its fascinating to me that some of the biggest lessons I have learned about love, can be applied to leadership too. But when you really think about it, it does makes sense. In both domains, we have imperfect human beings and all of our ‘stuff’ interacting, for better or for worse. And in both love and the workplace, there is A LOT at stake.

So who wouldn’t want a 2-for-1 lesson on some of the most important areas of our life?

With that said, here are 3 powerful “love” lessons that apply to leadership, either learned through therapy or my obsession with “love books”.

More appreciation is always a good thing

Did you know there is an optimal ratio of positive to negative feedback for healthy functioning in our relationships? Its 5:1 and unfortunately most of us are a long way from meeting it regularly! Many of us seem to focus on what our partner does wrong, and forget to affirm all the things they do right. The same applies in the workplace – one of the biggest factors in an employee’s engagement is feeling appreciated. So in both areas of our life, we could probably get a bit more obsessive about what goes right versus what goes wrong.

A great way to increase appreciation is to notice and respond to other’s “bids for connection”. These are the micro-moments when a person is looking to connect in some way – a partner might say “did you notice my haircut”, “I took out the garbage today” or “can we have a date sometime soon?”. In each of these bids for connection, we have an opportunity to either meet our partner with attention and appreciation, or totally leave them hanging. This happens at work too, with our colleagues and those that report to us: “This was my first time doing this project/task …”, “Let me know what you think about my draft …”, "I have been really busy ...". How many times do we brush off those bids instead of taking the bait and having a moment of connection? We presume that people know how much we love (or appreciate/respect) them, but the truth is, most people need to hear appreciation expressed just a little bit more.

Invitation What can you do to show more appreciation generally and specifically, notice and respond to people’s bids for connection in the workplace and your personal life?

“It takes two people to create a pattern but it takes one person to change it”

This quote is from psychotherapist and intimacy specialist, Esther Perel. We can all recognize that we fall into familiar patterns, loops or “dances” in our intimate relationships. In our romantic relationships, maybe both parties get caught in a cycle of blaming each other, or one party is always the one to criticize while the other withdraws, or as soon as conflict happens, both parties completely shut down. The point being that the pattern is a cycle that two parties get caught and stuck in ...

BUT, all it takes is one party to catch the unhealthy “dance”, to disengage and thereby create the possibility of a different, more helpful interaction.

I have watched the same dynamic play out in our workplace.⁠ And I have a hunch we could make positive change if we start to think about some of the unhealthy patterns we can disengage from:

  • a colleague breaking from an automatic response of defensiveness/stonewalling/blame (pick your unproductive response!), and instead presuming benefit of the doubt in the person they are engaging with

  • leaders breaking from always giving all the answers and instead helping their team learn, grow and ultimately be less reliant on them

  • overwhelmed professionals breaking from believing that everything must be done right now and by them, thereby reducing burnout and providing better information to organizations about what healthy staffing and capacity levels look like

My experience is often we mistakenly think we can’t change a situation and we have much more power than we think – but we do have to be willing to try something different.

Invitation – Reflect on the unhealthy “dances” that might be happening in your personal or work relationships, and where you can set the tone in “unhooking” to create a different dynamic.

Relationships work best when there is “secure attachment” experienced by both parties

I have spent a lot of time learning about “attachment theory” and how our early childhood relationships with our primary caregivers impact us in our adult life. Summarizing (my interpretation) of a very big topic into a brief summary: romantic relationships tends to function best when both parties are “securely attached” – this means both parties feel secure, can trust and be trusted and depend on each other, without being dependent on one another. These relationships have minimal games, power struggles or insecurities. People in these relationships are actively choosing to be with one another, and not staying in the relationship because they feel “stuck”. And from this place of feeling secure, both thrive as individuals and as a couple.

What does this have to do with work? Stick with me. I would argue that the best working relationships occur when a “secure attachment” exists between an employee and their employer. Both parties are entering into the relationship because they want to, not because they need to. No one feels stuck. There is security – the employee feels secure because they know they add value and are appreciated – the employer feels secure because it knows it provides a good employee experience and fair compensation. When this dynamic exists, the employee can be at their best – they are not worried about competing or proving their worth and instead focus on doing their best work, growing and developing. The employer is also at their best – because they are offering a great employee experience, they are not caught in a cycle of turnover and lack of engagement and can focus on what they do best in their business.

When I imagine a workplace of “secure attachment”, I envision a workplace where people’s potential is maximized, where they offer their best to the business, and where innovation, creativity and results happen.

Invitation – In your personal and work relationships, what can you do to create more of a secure attachment?

I hope you had as much fun reading this as I did writing it, and that some of these lessons can have double impact in your life. Happy Valentine’s Day!

PS: If you are interested in learning more about some of the topics mentioned in this blog, below I have listed some of my favorite resources:

Attached - The New Science of Adult Attachment (Amir Levine)

Love Sense - The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships (Dr. Sue Johnson)

PPS: If you'd like to chat about my professional coaching & leadership development work, please DM me. I'd love to connect.

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