• Jeff Doolittle

Embracing Selfless Love in the Workplace



Without selfless love in the workplace, the best of what might be is impossible. 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 that failure is 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 in the workplace and unlocks the best of what can be. This article provides insights from current research into how selfless love enhances workplace diversity and talent retention efforts, as well as how you can cultivate selfless love in the workplace.


What is selfless love?


To better understand what is meant by selfless love, it is helpful to look at the meaning of each word.


The meaning of selfless is to be more concerned with the needs and desires of others than with your needs.


Love is a word with multiple meanings and is not frequently discussed within the context of the workplace. 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

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.



Therefore, selfless love in the workplace is to desire and put into action the will for the good of another ahead of your good.


Selfless love is a radically different paradigm from a transactional worldview of the workplace. A transactional leadership worldview adopts a top-down view that organizational talent performs best:

  • within a chain of command

  • using rewards and punishments to motivate

  • and following the leader's directives is the employee's primary goal.

Transactional leadership theory is centered around a paradigm that leaders give employees something they want in exchange for getting something they want. Transactional leaders approach the workplace with 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. The best measure of success is for a servant leader is to see those served become healthier, wiser, freer, more self-directed, and ultimately more likely to serve others.


The following poem called "Outwitted" from 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!



Why practice selfless love?


A couple of the biggest challenges leaders face today are retaining top talent and creating inclusive workplaces that bring 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 for the years to come. This increase in diversity can have many positive workplace effects, such as enhanced performance, creativity, innovation, and decision quality. However, discriminatory workplace practices rooted in-group 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 establish an organizational culture where healthy and caring leader-follower relationships break down the adverse effects of in-group and out-group differences.


Another everyday challenge leaders across all industries and sizes face is attracting and retaining top talent. All you have to do is drive down any street or walk through your local retail district to see the signs for help wanted. Organizational commitment is a term used to describe the identification of an individual with a particular company. Research has directly connected higher levels of organizational commitment with lower intent to leave measures. Research into the empirical effects of selfless love enhances organizational commitment, productivity, job performance, and emotional well-being.


Selfless love has many proven positive effects on individuals, teams, and organizations.


How are empathy and compassion different from selfless love?


While empathy, compassion, and selfless love are interrelated, there are distinct differences.


  • 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 improvements in job performance, mental health, and leader-follower relationships.

Although having awareness (empathy) and a desire to help (compassion) is essential, the world needs leaders that put the will for the good of others ahead of their good. Self-serving leaders have created significant harm. Leaders that 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.



How can you cultivate selfless love?


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.

Like competencies and behaviors, selfless love can be developed and embedded within organizational processes for talent management. Also, like competency development, the development of selfless love can have various positive consequences for businesses. Virtue and character development should include:

  • knowledge transfer

  • reasoning

  • and practice.

Character development is primarily developed through role modeling with intentional time for feedback and reflection. Feedback is a gift; most people want more feedback on their performance. However, feedback on character gaps is not commonly provided, given the complexity of these conversations.


Additionally, most people spend little to no time reflecting on selfless love experiences because of blind spots. Utilizing 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 experience.


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