Barsade & O’Neill (2014). What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in a Long-term Care Setting

Sigal Barsade, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Olivia O’Neill, School of Business, George Mason University

Laura Rees, Owen Graduate School of Business, Vanderbilt University
Ashley Hardin, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

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Question 1. With such detailed observation, there are often many questions that could have been explored. How did you determine the scope of your paper? Were there interesting insights from the field that you decided to leave out of the paper, why?

Our biggest “scope challenge” was actually a theoretical one. We had to make a critical framing decision as to whether to make the culture of companionate love the focus of the paper, or instead make the more generalized construct of “emotional culture” the focus of the paper– with culture of companionate love as an illustration. Both perspectives worked well; indeed, we began with the more general focus on overall emotional culture and shifted to culture of companionate love as the central focus based on reviewer and editor feedback. This “figure”/”ground” decision was difficult, as we thought both approaches were important and offered a critical new lens for the field.

With regard to deciding the scope of where to examine the construct, that is, the industry, companionate love was particularly appropriate to study in a healthcare context because – as we knew from the research literature – loving interactions are a part of, rather than separate from, the work itself. Even within healthcare, though, the leaders of this particular organization we studied were really ahead of their time. Why? They recognized the importance of developing a strong culture of love among employees (not just between caregivers and patients), even as many other healthcare organizations were still firmly entrenched in the more “clinical” or “bottom-line-oriented” model of providing and delivering patient care.

We did not leave much out of the paper. One of unique benefits of ASQ is that researchers can fully explore questions in greater depth – without the type of arbitrary page limits in other journals. In addition, ASQ is unique in allowing (and even encouraging) additional empirical insights in the discussion session. This allowed us to make a critical “proof of concept” empirical point that companionate love was not only uniquely related to health care and offer preliminary evidence of its importance in other fields. This evidence was not strong enough to stand on its own as an independent study, but contributed nicely to the paper as a whole. All in all, we felt that ASQ allowed us the space to include all the insights that we thought to our constructs.

Question 2. What was the hardest part of the study for those of your research team who spent a lot of time in the facility? You mention the number of patients who died between each of your data collection times. This seems like a difficult study site to be in, both personally and emotionally—how did your team deal with seeing individuals whom they had come to know and likely care for suffer and even die? What would you recommend to other researchers interested in studying industries or firms that are similarly personally challenging?

Long-term care settings are different than other jobs in some ways (such as the average age of the “clients”, i.e., patients, which was nearly 84 years old!), but employees in this profession still share some of the same struggles – burnout, dissatisfaction, overload – as employees in other jobs. The rituals surrounding the death of patients were among the most anthropologically interesting aspects of this setting, but we observing certain details of the day-to-day work of employees was actually the hardest part. Some of the patients suffered from dementia and other ailments that could lead to combative or disoriented behavior. The nature of some of the health problems also resulted in patients who could rarely express appreciation or gratitude toward the employees, which is difficult in any profession. Seeing patients struggle with deteriorating health conditions and loneliness – particularly those who had no relatives or friends come to visit them – was also difficult. There were also some employees who were suspicious of the study, and would try to avoid talking to or being observed by the researchers – again, not so different than any other field setting. It does require a great deal of patience, compassion, resilience and humor to be a successful field researcher!

Question 3. You do an excellent job justifying the concept of love and companionate love in particular as relevant to organizations and their employees, customers, and other stakeholders. As you discuss, however, at first glance love might seem like a somewhat unique or odd choice of constructs to study in an organizational setting. Did you face any pushback from reviewers or others about your choice of love? How would you recommend young scholars approach studying and publishing their work on topics that might seem odd or risky for similar reasons?

It was risky to attempt to break new ground on the topic of organizational culture through a study of the emotional culture of companionate love – which was new to organizational behavior – but we felt confident that ASQ would be open to thinking about organizations and organizational relationships in this fundamentally different way (in fact, that is why we sought out ASQ as the outlet for our paper). Our reviewers had extremely interesting, probing questions for us along the way. We believe their questions significantly strengthened the paper. For example, initially, one of our reviewers questioned whether workplace relationships could be deep enough to sustain what we were calling a “culture of companionate love”. This assumption became one of the motivating bases of our argumentation, as we felt this was an assumption that many people – managers and scholars alike – probably shared, and which was important to test empirically. Testing this assumption, and finding that a culture of companionate love existed and could matter was one of the major contributions of the study. Interestingly, the reviewers supported us using the word “companionate love” rather than the less complete but more managerially palatable construct of “caring.” They pushed us hard on what exactly we meant by companionate love, but – at the same time – they definitely encouraged us to be bold and precise.

As for young scholars who are considering a study of extremely new, odd, or risky topics, our advice would be that if you care about it, and can study it rigorously – do it! You should study what you are are passionate about, and what is risky today, can help you be a leader in the field tomorrow. But it is critical to support the new constructs very strongly both theoretically and empirically – as you may well get a lot of understandable push back.

Question 4. The examples you describe and your field setting of long-term patient care suggest that time is a critical component to witness and express companionate love. What is your sense for how companionate love might play out in shorter timeframes, or with single interactions? Could companionate love be shown in short-term care facilities, or by a barista to a first-time customer, or from a supervisor to an employee on his or her first day, or does companionate love between two people take time to build and be reinforced through actions before it can be expressed? On one hand, based on prior work, it is plausible that expressing companionate love without feeling it toward an individual is possible (enacting love behaviors), but would these be perceived by the receiver as acts of companionate love or simply as a one-off act of kindness (which might simply be a manifestation of the deeper construct of companionate love)?

Absolutely companionate love can be seen in a single interaction! Norms, for example are a primary manifestations of culture that involves patterns of behavior expressed in everyday interpersonal interactions. One of us (O’Neill) recently conducted an interview with a university employee, who described how a culture of companionate love was manifested simply in the way her colleagues asked, “How are you?” She said, “Just the very kind, and honest and authentic way, [my colleague] looked at me and said, “How are you doing this morning?” There’s a genuine authenticity, a genuine sense of care.”

With respect to other manifestations of culture such as artifacts, classic social psychological research tells us that these “small acts” can have big consequences, particularly when we’re talking about emotions, which are highly contagious. There has been some great research in psychology by Barb Fredrickson and her collaborators on “moments” of love and from the Michigan POS group’s work on “compassion acts”. These concepts dovetail nicely with the more sociological work on culture, which emphasizes the stable, long-term manifestations of culture such as values and assumptions. Temporally both are instances of the companionate love, and it would be interesting to explore how the act of displaying companionate love differs in a short term setting and a longer term relationship. Our hypothesis is that in the moment the emotional outcomes are very similar, and there could be some interesting cumulative effects to be explored.

Question 5. Is companionate love most relevant when the situation is negative? Many of the examples you cite of companionate love being shown, both in your sample and in prior work, deal with tragedies, crises, or in the case of the long-term care facility, an environment likely to remind those in it of the fragility of life on a consistent basis. What would companionate love look like in a non-crisis or non-life threatening situation?

It is true that companionate love – particularly the compassion portion of it – is critically important when the circumstances of the job or the larger organizational climate are negative. We’ve heard from a lot of employees who tell us how important the culture of companionate love is when their job is boring or stressful, or when the organizational is going through negative times involving things like budget cuts and layoffs. That said, every job has some unpleasant aspects or people, and we have no reason to believe that culture of love isn’t equally important in those relatively minor, “everyday” negative circumstances as well. Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of companionate love during everyday positive events, keeping the workplace on an even and caring keel. One employee recently said in an interview that the most important thing to her in a job was being cared for by her work colleagues and the feeling of “family” – and this is when things were good. Even during positive events – birthdays, accomplishments – strong cultures of love offer the space and the opportunities to show caring, tenderness, and affection for others. We definitely need more research documenting the “everyday” instances of companionate love in the workplaces.

A related question is whether love matters more in some industries than others (e.g. crisis oriented or not, health care or not), and we don’t think so. As we noted above, in the article we reported evidence from 17 organizational samples suggesting culture of love matters in many industries – including finance, real estate, and other industries that you don’t necessarily associate with being strong cultures of love – and that it is the variation within industry that is really more important that between industries. Having said that, it would be intriguing to look at the interaction of a culture of companionate love with other emotional cultures – such as culture of anger or fear – something we are doing in an upcoming study, and something we encourage future researchers to do in our discussion section. In fact to help with this, we published a set of emotional culture scales in the Appendix of the article (available on line or from the authors), that have culture of anger, fear, envy and joy scales in addition to the culture of companionate love scale. We did so in the hope of encouraging more research into emotional culture in general (back to the “figure/ground”), and to better understand the interaction of the discrete emotional cultures with each other.

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