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Lead Your Team Managing

All You Need Is Love: Why Workplaces Need Some Compassion

Credit: Twnsterphoto/Shutterstock

Having a company culture with a little love and compassion can go a long way toward making a better workplace, new research finds.

A study recently published in the Academy of Management Journal suggests that businesses need to strike a balance between a lighthearted and fun workplace and one that is compassionate and caring.

While the researchers looked specifically at the life of firefighters and the culture inside fire stations, the study's authors believe their findings are also relevant to less male-dominated workplaces.

The study found two types of workplace cultures inside fire stations: joviality and companionate love. A jovial workplace is one where employees can have fun and take a joke, as well as participate in pranks and practical jokes. [See Related Story: Loosen Up! Having Fun at Work is Good for Culture]

Conversely, a workplace of companionate love is one in which compassion, affection and caring in times of need are deeply important to its culture. The researchers said they were surprised to find that this type of culture permeates fire stations, considering they are typically filled with men.

"This seeming paradox – the presence of a strong culture of companionate love … illustrates the importance of adopting a more nuanced, contextualized view of masculine organizational culture," the study's authors wrote.

The study found that the best workplaces strike a balance between these two types of cultures.

"The positive aspects of a culture of joviality and a culture of companionate love can work together to temper one another and allow individuals to flourish," the study's authors wrote.

The research found that in fire stations where both cultures were strong, workers were significantly less likely to engage in risky behaviors off the job than was the case at stations where one of the cultures wasn’t as strong.

The study also found that a compassionate culture aided the physical health of workers who experienced a great deal of work-family conflict and coped with it by bottling up the emotions at work. Specifically, a strong culture of companionate love significantly lowers the occurrences of many common ailments, including insomnia, headaches, indigestion and fatigue. A strictly jovial culture tends to make those health problems worse.

For the study, researchers conducted group interviews at 27 firehouses in a major metropolitan area in order to find both prominent and hidden aspects of emotions.

The researchers found that the cultures were both strong in about 37 percent of the fire stations surveyed and both weak in about 30 percent of the stations. In 19 percent of the stations, joviality was strong and companionate love weak, and in 15 percent the opposite was true.

Olivia Amanda O'Neill, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at George Mason University, said she was surprised to see the culture of compassion and love in such a male-dominated workplace.

"I had previously done research on emotional culture among the largely female staff of a long-term-care facility, where companionate love was very much in evidence, and a question this raised is whether something similar would be true in a largely male workplace," O'Neill said in a statement. "That this culture emerged strongly, in combination with a strong culture of joviality, was something prior behavioral research on men had not led us to anticipate."

Although this research looked specifically at firefighters and fire stations, the study's authors believe leaders in all workplaces would be best served to implement rituals, practices and policies that make compassion normal and appealing.

"First recognize that workplace culture involves not just cognitive values, like the need for teamwork or innovation, but emotions as well," O'Neill said. "Then pay attention to the emotions you express every day, modulating them as needed. For example, our study found joviality to be associated with good group coordination, so if lack of coordination is a problem, those in charge should try to lighten things up.”

However, if stress is a problem, warmth and kindness should be more of a focus, O'Neill said.

The researchers believe a balance between the two cultures is critical, because without a strong culture of compassion, a completely jovial culture may emerge, which could worsen some negative tendencies often associated with masculinity.

"In some corporate contexts, the types of jokes and pranks we observed that were associated with a strong culture of joviality might be considered harassment or bullying," the study's authors wrote. "This possibility underscores the importance of the tempering effect of companionate love for harnessing the positive aspects of an organization's emotional culture."

The study was co-authored by Nancy Rothbard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.