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Embracing Selfless Love in the Workplace

Without selfless love in the workplace, the best of what might be is impossible to achieve. Stop and think about the implications of that statement for a moment. There is no serious debate that well-designed organizations with clear organizational strategies influence desired behaviors, culture, and performance. Numerous studies identify failure as often tied to misalignment between the organization and its operational environment. However, while organizational alignment is essential, it is not sufficient. Selfless love brings out the best in how people think, act, and feel. If you want to start embracing selfless love in the workplace, you’ll need to start tapping into these four keys today.

The benefits of selfless love in the workplace

The well-documented individual and organizational benefits of selfless love include:

  • Intrinsic motivation

  • Increased creativity

  • Discretionary effort

  • Better workplace climate

  • Enhanced employee capacity

  • Enhanced leader-follower alignment

Two complex challenges leaders face today are attracting and retaining top talent and creating inclusive workplaces that brings out the best in all employees.

Diversity in the world and workplace is increasing. Globalization and technological advances are projected to continue to increase workgroup diversity. This increase in diversity can have many positive workplace effects, such as enhanced performance, creativity, innovation, and decision quality. However, workplace practices rooted in favoritism are costly, leading to increased relational conflict and a lack of team cohesion.

In-group favoritism results in actions that favor one group.

When leaders demonstrate selfless love, they cultivate an organizational culture where healthy and caring leader-follower relationships break down the adverse effects of in-group and out-group differences.

All you have to do is drive down any street or walk through your local retail district to see the signs for help wanted and understand the challenge of attracting and retaining the best and brightest employees. Organizational commitment is a term used to identify an individual with a particular company. Research has directly connected higher levels of organizational commitment with lower employee turnover rates. Studies have demonstrated that selfless love enhances organizational commitment.

The following short video from leadership guru Ken Blanchard provides some thoughts on the power of servant leadership in today's workplace.

What is selfless love?

Selflessness is being more concerned with the needs and desires of others than with your needs. And one of the best definitions I have come across for love in the workplace comes from St. Thomas Aquinas.

"To love is to will the good of the other." St. Thomas Aquinas

Selfless love in the workplace is to desire and put into action the will for the good of another ahead of your interest. It is a radically different paradigm from a transactional worldview of the workplace.

If you have nine minutes, the following video captures the essence of the meaning behind the definition used by St. Thomas Aquinas. Although the video does not use a workplace example, the intent of willing the good of the other is shown.

The following poem called "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham captures the belief that selfless love creates a radical sense of belonging for everyone:

He drew a circle that shut me out—Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in!

Are empathy and compassion different from selfless love?

Empathy, compassion, and selfless love are interrelated, but distinct differences exist.

Empathy is the ability to be aware of, feel, and take on the emotions of what another person is experiencing. Empathy plays a vital role in moderating the effects of workplace conflict. Research has linked empathy with forgiveness and healing relationships. The following is a short video from Brene Brown that explains empathy and its value within the workplace.

Compassion is an empathic understanding with a desire to help another person. Recent studies into the benefits of compassion at work link it to improved job performance, mental health, and leader-follower relationships.

Although having awareness (empathy) and a desire to help (compassion) is essential, the world needs leaders who put the will for the good of others ahead of their interest.

Leaders who emphasize selfless love bring out the best in how people think, act, and feel in the workplace, leading to success and significance both personally and professionally.

Tapping into selfless love

Selfless love is not just something you are either born with or not. You can apply these four keys to cultivate selfless love in the workplace.

Key #1: Measurement

Selfless love is not just something you are either born with or not. Selfless love may seem complex and challenging to articulate, much less measure; however, validated measurement instruments exist.

  • Muel Kaptein introduced and validated the Corporate Ethical Virtues Model, which measures virtues at the organizational level.

  • Vincent Ng and colleagues expanded on the Comprehensive Inventory of Virtuous Instantiations of Character instrument by creating a valid multidimensional forced-choice individual character instrument.

  • The Leadership Character Insights Assessment measures an individual's character through self-assessment or 360-degree assessment using behavioral anchors.

  • The Values In Action (VIA) Survey is a free, 15-minute self-assessment that helps discover your greatest strengths.

Key #2: Development

Like leadership behaviors, selfless love can be developed. Evidence suggests that development specific to selfless love should include knowledge transfer, reasoning, and practice elements. Development primarily takes place through role modeling with intentional time for feedback. However, feedback on character gaps is not commonly provided in the workplace, given the complexity of these conversations.

Evidence suggests that organizations can incorporate selfless love development into existing competency development programs. It is not required for organizations to create separate programs focused only on character and virtue development.

Key #3: Reflection

Most leaders spend little to no time reflecting on character experiences because of blind spots. A dedicated and skillful executive coach can improve character feedback and purposeful character reflection. Numerous studies have found that dedicated mentors can also support character development by openly reflecting on insights gained from their experience.

Key #4: Leadership Style

Servant leadership characteristics are practical ways for a leader to bring selfless love into the workplace:

  1. Listening to self and others

  2. Showing empathy

  3. Healing self and others

  4. Being aware

  5. Persuasion and not coercion

  6. Conceptual thinking, not linear thinking

  7. Applying strategic foresight

  8. Stewardship of other's needs

  9. Commitment to the development of others

  10. Building community

Conversely, a traditional transactional leadership style adopts a top-down view of an organization with the leader at the top. Transactional leadership is based on the belief that employees perform best:

  • Within a well-formed chain of command

  • Rewards and punishments motivate

  • Following the leader's directives is the employee's primary goal

Transactional leaders give employees something they want in exchange for getting something they want. This leadership style adopts a mental model that workers are not self-motivated and require structure, instruction, and monitoring to achieve organizational goals correctly and on time.

In stark contrast, when adopting a selfless love worldview, the leader desires to bring out the best in their followers by giving them the best of themself. A servant leadership style aligns well with selfless love.

Key Points:

  • Selfless love in the workplace is to desire and put into action the will for the good of another ahead of your interests.

  • When leaders demonstrate selfless love, they establish an organizational culture where healthy and caring leader-follower relationships break down the adverse effects of in-group and out-group differences.

  • Selfless love enhances organizational commitment, productivity, job performance, and emotional well-being.

  • Leaders who emphasize selfless love bring out the best in how people think, act, and feel in the workplace, leading to success and significance both personally and professionally.

  • To gain a competitive advantage in an uncertain world, leadership needs to move beyond cultivating organizational strategy, design, and behaviors to include selfless love.


Doolittle, J. (2023). Life-changing leadership habits: 10 proven principles that will elevate people, profit, and purpose. Organizational Talent Consulting.

Ferris, R. (1988). How organizational love can improve leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 16(4), 41-51.

Fry, L. W., Vitucci, S., & Cedillo, M. (2005). Spiritual leadership and army transformation: Theory, measurement, and establishing a baseline. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(5), 835-862.

Kaptein, M. (2008). Developing and testing a measure for the ethical culture of organizations: The corporate ethical virtues model. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29(7), 923-947.

Lok, P., & Crawford, J. (2004). The effect of organisational culture and leadership style on job satisfaction and organisational commitment: A cross‐national comparison. The Journal of Management Development, 23(4), 321-338.

Mulinge, P. (2018). Altruism and altruistic love: Intrinsic motivation for servant-leadership. The International Journal of Servant-Leadership, 12(1), 337-370.

Ng, V., Lee, P., Ho, M. R., Kuykendall, L., Stark, S., & Tay, L. (2020). The development and validation of a multidimensional forced-choice format character measure: Testing the Thurstonian IRT approach. Journal of Personality Assessment, 1-14.

Ran, Y., Liu, Q., Cheng, Q., & Zhang, Y. (2021). Implicit-explicit power motives congruence and forgiveness in the workplace conflict: The mediating role of empathy. The International Journal of Conflict Management, 32(3), 445-468.

Seijts, G., Crossan, M., & Carleton, E. (2017). Embedding leader character into HR practices to achieve sustained excellence. Organizational Dynamics, 46(1), 30-39. doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2017.02.001

Van Knippenberg, D., De Dreu, Carsten K. W, & Homan, A. C. (2004). Work group diversity and group performance: An integrative model and research agenda. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(6), 1008-1022.

Zachary, G. W. (2013). Spiritual leadership: Investigating the effects of altruistic love on organizational commitment. International Journal of Arts & Sciences, 6(2), 767.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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