Love and trust go hand in hand, so why are we so averse to talking about love in the workplace?
In the decades I spent as a corporate leader, I participated in dozens of courses on how to become a more heart-centered leader. They focused on strategies, checklists, and formulas of “do this, don’t do that” with the anticipated result of building trust, thereby creating high performing teams, and naturally improving profits. While I left each course freshly inspired and determined to force these new behaviours into my repertoire of leadership tools and tricks, the long-term impacts were minimal. Surprisingly, not once in all my training was the word “love” ever mentioned.
Love builds trust and trust builds love. These are kindergarten 101 skills, so why are we so averse to talking about love in the workplace? Having worked a lifetime in HR, the simple answer is fear. Love gets confused with sex and lust, and so for reasons that should probably elicit more scrutiny, fear can be a response. I like to think of love like Joseph Campbell describes it in his book Hero With a Thousand Faces as “nourishing and protecting” or “the attitude of a young child towards its mother” which reveals the unconditional aspect of love that is needed to build trust. Unconditional love is demonstrated at work by learning how to hold space.
To hold space means to eliminate your judgment, criticism, opinions, or advice and listen as though the universe has stopped because what the person is saying is so profoundly important. Inauthenticity is revealed energetically, so you have to mean it. When you hold space, you create safety, which allows people to be vulnerable and share their feelings. While it’s not appropriate for every conversation, if you want to build connection and trust, you must make regular time for it in your communities. It’s not a skill just for leaders, it’s a skill for everyone. Interestingly, the place I learned this skill was not in a corporate training program, but at Holotropic Breathwork training.
Depth psychology founder Carl Jung was a master of the unconscious psyche. His magnum opus, The Red Book reveals the basis for the theories of his life’s work. In the final chapter titled Scrutinies he shares much of the wisdom gained on his journey. Jung states that the absence of community leads to “suffering and sickness”. He refers to community as “depth” and singleness as “height”. These words reveal a flaw in our culture. Most of us have been marinated in family, society, and workplace systems that value height over depth, and therefore become so unconsciously and narrowly focused on upward success that we fail to feed the extensive network around us, leading to a suffering and sick community.
The importance of feeding your network is described beautifully in biologist Suzanne Simard’s book Finding the Mother Tree. In it, she shares her ground-breaking research that forests are linked through a vast underground fungal network that serves as a communication channel and a way to share life sustaining resources. Within each forest are “mother trees” that act as the hub of this network, having great power to influence the whole system. They protect and share resources with the other trees, and the other trees share and protect them in a symbiotic relationship. While the connection between trees and people may not be obvious to everyone, even a rudimentary study of quantum physics and the interconnectedness of all things through energy may convince you otherwise. Simard has given us a living metaphor for the power we each have to strengthen our communities.
Holding space is not as easy of a skill to build as one might imagine because it involves exploring your unconscious to discover your shadow - something that is very difficult to do. But if you don’t get to know your shadow, when people you are holding space for share frustrations or emotions that are directed at you, you are more likely to project it back on them, thereby reacting in a way that breaches trust. Trust is a lot easier to break than to build. Change starts within and ripples outward. Meaningful change begins in the depths (unconscious) and is raised to the heights (consciousness). Perhaps we should endeavor to put depth before height in our trust building practices.
In the years prior to my retirement, as I navigated my first cycle through the unconscious, I began to recognize the extent to which I had valued height over depth in my career, and how weak that made me. I took a keen interest in righting this wrong, because it horrified me to realize the negative impact I was sometimes having on other people. Company profits didn’t enter my mind as I allowed myself to be vulnerable, gave a piece of my heart to the people around me, and learned the art of holding space. A strange thing began to happen. The people around me became more vulnerable and gave a piece of their heart to me.
When I retired from payroll last month, I set up an individual meeting with each of the forty people on my team for a personal goodbye. Imagine my surprise when I was showered with kindness, gifts, tears, and words I will never forget. Apparently, I had become one of the mother trees in my workplace. The surprises kept coming when about a week after I left work a wave of grief overcame me as I realized the profound loss of so many meaningful relationships all at once. Becoming more heart-centered puts you in touch with deep feelings and it has a cost, but it’s one that I will gladly pay ten times over.
As a deep expert in my field of payroll, I’ve had lots of heights in my career, but it’s the depths I dove into that really mattered. Now, when I’m asked how to build trust my answer is simple. Love, actually.
Campbell, J. (2008). The Hero With A Thousand Faces (3rd ed.). Novato: New World Library.
Jung, C. (2009). The Red Book. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Simard, S. (2021). Finding the Mother Tree. New York: Vintage Books.
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