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When love raises its head on the shop floor


In large organisations love hardly rates a mention. Mission statements highlight care, duty, responsibility and friendliness, but not love. Love is generally seen as an interrupter, combustible, something to fence in with protocols and professional standards, and for HR to monitor. When Pope Benedict XVI devoted an Encyclical to the place of love in public relationships, people were surprised. His argument is worth revisiting.

In contemporary culture public and personal spheres are sharply distinguished, and love is seen as personal. Personal relationships are the business of the individuals concerned. When brought into public life they can distort people’s reasoning and create conflicts of interest. If love turns to resentment the consequences can hurt the effectiveness and reputation of an organisation.

In some economic ideologies love is implicitly seen as subversive of organisations and society. If economic growth is the measure of personal value and the good of society, and it is achieved by individuals competing for profit, the intrusion of love can erode the individual’s stern commitment to the pursuit of wealth. Altruism has no place in organisations.

In governmental and other institutions charged with the care of people, the principal internal relationships are often seen as transactional, and so conceived in terms of justice rather than love. They focus on fairness and emphasise correctness and resolving conflicts in relationships with the people whom they serve.

In such an austere world Pope Benedict’s reflections on the place of love in public life can seem both strange and beguiling. He begins by reflecting on love within a Christian framework and moves to consider its place in public life. He identifies love with desire, which is the engine of all that we plan and do. Our loves dictate the large things that we seek, whether they be virtue, wealth, power, fame, sexual gratification or comfort, truth or goodness. Within love he identifies two movements:  one is the desire to receive, and the other to give. Ideally they run together, so that when we love someone we want both them to be a gift to us, and ourselves a gift to them.  Where love is identified only with receiving, our love for the other is possessive. When our desire to receive is matched by a desire to give, our love is altruistic. We see our own good as bound to others’ flourishing. Benedict explores the implications of this double sided quality of love for economic and other public relationships.

Seen from this perspective the view that individuals’ desire for profit and wealth is an adequate engine for public prosperity is shallow. Such a view incorporates love as the desire to get but neglects love as the desire to give, except perhaps to serve the self-interest of the organisation. Love between persons is relegated to Human Relations, whose role is to ensure that satisfied and focused workers will be the instruments of a profitable organisation.


'When love guides an organisation, everyone within it will be invested in its mission to people.'


This bleak understanding of public life and of organisations, of course, does not match the reality. Many businesses need to reckon with the desire of valuable workers for something more than money. They may love wealth but love family more, or desire to contribute to the community and its disadvantaged members. In their own self-interest firms may then be led to adjust working hours, promote pro bono work or sponsor migrant workers. In this way the private loves of their workers are brought into the public life of the organisation for its enrichment.

Increasingly, too, firms recognise the importance of a social license that implies a desire for the good of the whole society. They need it in order to avoid the reputational damage of too naked a self-interest. In the United States, too, though less in Australia, there has been a tradition of wealthy business people contributing to charitable causes. Although these initiatives are sometimes dismissed as reputation polishing, they do make space for love within the life of organisations and point to the costs of its exclusion. 

Organisations whose work is to help people flourish have a greater need to include love in their remit. The quality of the relationships between the people who work there and those for whom they work is central to the effectiveness of schools, hospitals, homes for the aged and programs for people who are unemployed, who suffer from mental illness, have come under the justice system, and of other similar organisations. Most people who work in these fields are initially drawn to their work because they want to give something to the people whom they serve. The gifts they offer directly are their professional skills. But underlying their work is the desire that their relationship with the people whom they serve will also contribute to their growth or healing as human beings. Their service is an expression of love.

If love is important for the effectiveness of organisations its place must also be recognised in the policies that govern relationships. In many cases it is imperative that these relationships are stable and build trust, People who are ill benefit from having a regular doctor, children from having continuing teachers, and young people who are vulnerable from pairing with stable mentors who can help them access a variety of services. To slice and dice services so that people are routinely passed on from person to person or from agency to agency is not conducive to their flourishing. It treats people as objects to be dealt with and not as persons to be cared for.

When love guides an organisation, everyone within it will be invested in its mission to people. In their relationships with receptionists, teachers, nurses, doctors and fellow workers, those reliant on the organisation will find the same interest in them as persons and care for their welfare. Love will permeate the institution. This may seem to be idealistic religious hyperbole, and certainly all institutions and people within them will sometimes fall short of the ideal. But when you see this ideal embodied, as it is in the secular Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, it is difficult to describe the distinctive quality of the organisation without reference to love. Patients there often comment on how the consistent personal welcome they receive there helps them to become better persons as well as better medicated persons. 

For love to rule in a workplace attention needs to be paid to all the networks of relationships between people and with the environment that constitute the organisation. Policies and protocols will spell out in detail what trust involves. The same respect will characterise the relationship between staff and the people they serve, between members of staff themselves, between managers and frontline workers, and between staff and the public. Respect feeds into enjoyment of one another’s company, flexibility to help one another out, and into the outflow of energy for demanding tasks. It also feeds the desire for better ways of working. Staff look forward to coming to work and the people for whom they care look forward to meet them.

Competition may make the world go round. Only love will take it to anywhere worth arriving at. 




Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Businesswoman using laptop with heart shape of sticky notes on the wall (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, love, public relationships, economics



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Existing comments

Quite a good read... I'd be first in line to shake Andrew's hand with enthusiasm if he can carry this notion over the line more widely. There are very deliberate ethical boundaries precisely devised to ensure the "love" doesn't extend to more than a professional, equal and fair delivery of services to clients. Those of us cold, pricklies who are less loveable can take solace in the current laws which require conflicts of interest are declared so the warm, fuzzies don't get an emotionally uncontrolled exceptional outcome. As identified, trust and respect may be the keys to a better quality of working "relationship" however the caution needs to be exercised that the trust is not misplaced by naivety or overconfidence. Ultimately, we're humans, frequently placed in circumstances to decide the merits of other people and their needs; innumerable other unlawful prejudices aside, confirmation bias often directs us to make irrational decisions about others; "loving them, too" might not be what we want to hear in defense of scrutiny where someone has benefitted with special treatment.

ray | 04 November 2021  

When the Supremes sang "You Can't Hurry Love" (Can't hurry love/No you just have to wait/She said love don't come easy/It's a game of give and take) the lyrics resonated with the fans of the 1960s, and beyond. Like happiness, love happens unexpectedly. In any setting.

Pam | 05 November 2021  

Your words, Andy, bring St Paul to life! I'd missed Benno's injunction to love amidst my stiff-neckery about his conservatism, so this gentle reminder and unfurling is both sobering and necessary. I'm reminded too of Mother T, often accused of being ruthless behind an exterior that reduced many around her to tears of rapprochement and extraordinary generosity. I like too how you integrate the personal, the social, the economic and the sexual, often pitted against one another, into a holistic spiritual symphony of the ingredients it requires to integrate and 'operationalise' - ugly word - the action of love, which can otherwise easily descend into childish sentimentality. Within the past year or so, one glimpse of love that I saw, amidst his sometimes bumbling oratory, was Barnaby Joyce's evocation about the love that had grabbed hold of his life. Untidy? Yes! Painful for some, including him? Undoubtedly! Awkward and a liability for him politically? Unquestionably! But love, nonetheless, on show for all to see and bravely declared, messy even, and, above all, human. If he got this from the Jesuits that's enough for me.

Michael Furtado | 05 November 2021  
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‘Within the past year or so, one glimpse of love that I saw, amidst his sometimes bumbling oratory….’ That wasn’t love. It was licence. Love is an affection permitted within rational rules. Just as kidnapping a child to buy dolls for her isn’t love, neither is breaking up a household to take up with a stranger. The two only differ by degree, not by kind, because ‘in the beginning, it was not so’.

roy chen yee | 05 November 2021  

Hi! Michael, please forgive please forgive the intrusion into your dialogue with Roy.
At the beginning of April under the article. When poetry purifies (eurekastreet.com.au) You made a comment in response to my posts I initially responded to your comment almost immediately although I did not fully understand the ambivalence or the reason for the derogatory content directed at myself within it, my comment was not accepted. I recently looked at your comment once again and I think that I now understand where you are coming from, so to say, perhaps you would now respond under the said article
kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 09 November 2021  

‘Love’ is a sappy word and not one on which you can electioneer because people don’t like to vote for something that has no structure of rules to it, given that that is how their brains have evolved. Perhaps love is affection bounded within rules, and infatuation is that reckless, gypsy and somewhat unreliable wild abandon that naivetes often mispronounce as love until it bites them. Well, find an affection, find some fencing, and we’re in business.

roy chen yee | 05 November 2021  
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You sound as if you've been touched and wounded by love, Roy. I'm sorry; but in a way, I'm glad. Its a central aspect to my understanding of the Incarnation. No book of rules can contain it, nor temper the indiscipline that you rightly excoriate. I hope you understand...and I wish you Love!

Michael Furtado | 07 November 2021  

One can only say ‘thank you’ to your expression of sentiment, Michael, just as one can only say ‘thank you’ to one’s cat which lays at one’s feet half a lizard. It is, after all, only a cat, and if love is beyond understanding, love from a cat certainly is.

roy chen yee | 08 November 2021  

You lizard, you, Roy ;) I love too your wordplay, especially when you retract your claws and play with us, which is not often enough. Not only is it the Eucharist but also those sinners of your's, who bask in Its postprandial glow, who lighten the load for the journey ahead. And cats - like lizards - being sentient creatures, are surely part of God's Plan to help us feel as well as think (Pope Francis, 2019). Don't both faculties matter?

Michael Furtado | 08 November 2021  

‘Don't both faculties matter?’ Both faculties are bound by rules, otherwise nobody would be raising eyebrows at Woody Allen taking up with Soon-Yi Previn. But what, if that marriage is now 30 years old and apparently a happy one? Given that the happy couple will probably not want to talk with anyone else about how they started out is a clue that they had to violate some mores to get started, and the 30 years of happiness can be suggested to be more mercy than grace, perhaps for the sake of the children. The same, too, in thirty years’ time for the ‘new’ Barnaby Joyces, or any unnecessary frankensteinian re-stitching of a new relationship out of the euthanased cadaver of the one that should have lived.

roy chen yee | 10 November 2021  

A timely article for a society where there has been a breakdown of social systems giving rise to institutions, “conceived in terms of justice rather than love.”

Statistics from the USA show that 60% are affected by loneliness. The traditional social system of family and neighbourhood had a culture that was maintained through personal relationships, common values and trust. Much of this has been replaced by a caring industry that substitutes strangers for friends and relatives. While America’s population has doubled since mid-20th century, the caring industry (social workers, psychologists, counsellors, therapists and life coaches) has increased 100-fold.

No doubt most involved in care are professional and compassionate. And yet, studies have shown that talking to a therapist may be no more effective than talking to a friend. Other studies have shown that psychiatrists and psychologists are often no more effective at performing therapy than laypeople with minimal training.

The Sexual Revolution has brought much carnage to society and families. But pending a recovery there, we should hope that love does permeate all our workplaces and institutions.

Ross Howard | 05 November 2021  
Show Responses

I haven't always appreciated where you're coming from, Ross, but watching an SBS program last night on UK sperm donors brought home to me the tensions you highlight. Three males were interviewed about their donation of what one of them called 'no more than a bit of bodily fluid'. Much was made by all three of the philanthropic and charitable motivation for their 'gift' to childless women. All three were scrupulous in their assurance that no money changed hands and that their contact with recipients involved no genital contact. All very 'hunky dory', until one of them explained that he had not discussed the matter with his wife and another that it had cost him his relationship with his girlfriend. The third declined to show his face to the camera. Two brief forays were filmed about the legal implications of their occupation, deliberately so described because of the amount of time taken to assiduously 'extract' and 'deliver under hygienically clinical conditions' the 'solution' to the childless women who contacted them. Apart from one reference to a woman who exposed this practice as an abuse perpetrated by predatory men on vulnerable women, no one commented on the protracted narcissism on show.

Michael Furtado | 09 November 2021  

Thank you Andrew for outlining the ideal. In 48 years of teaching in Catholic Colleges in three Australian States, I have witnessed years when this common goal and purpose to serve others made a school hum.,As noted in such workplaces colleagues support one another and there grows a general pride in the enterprise. This was not about winning sport events - though that occurred in some instances - nor about claiming a large number of academic honours either. The noblest thing of all was to turn out men with an outgoing Christian outlook - ready to work for the good of others especially the downtrodden.

Ernest Azzopardi | 06 November 2021  

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