A former co-worker recently reached out to me baffled by having left yet another in a string of toxic and dysfunctional companies in recent years. Discouraged, she was looking for answers in hopes of avoiding another bad fit.

Gallup research has the answer: They've confirmed that people leave managers, not jobs. Anecdotally, I can attest to it. When my firm assesses our clients' exit-interview data, quite often employees bail ship because of bad leadership.

Things have changed. Employees are more agile, entrepreneurial, and want to play a bigger role in making decisions. Hierarchy and bureaucracy are now fossils; freedom, collaboration, transparency are the new normal. The future of work is here.

Building a community of "companionate love" for business impact

A leader with hope and a vision for developing a strong culture will first require converting to the belief system of serving employees first to be the best they can be in order to produce extraordinary results.

In most cases, such an environment feels more like community than the corporate grind. Managers and colleagues care about each other's work and show compassion when things don't go well. It is not only more appealing to work in such a place, but also is key to employee morale, teamwork and customer satisfaction.

This is what Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade, in her profound longitudinal study of caring workplaces, refers to as "companionate love."

Barsade's study is rare because it focuses on emotional culture rather than cognitive culture. "What we're talking about is shared emotions. Our field tends to focus on shared cognitions of people at work, yet an understanding of shared emotions of people at work can also have important outcomes for organizations," she states.

The impact from belonging to such a community of love and companionship is enormous. Colleagues that can look each other in the eye with honest truth and mutual trust, who can behave and belong in a system of shared values and emotions, and show dignity and respect are ultimately more loyal to each other and their companies. And all that translates to business outcomes, otherwise this premise is a complete farce.

The starting point for building community

To transform a toxic work culture to a healthy community will take monumental strides, but it is possible with visionary leaders acting on this vision, setting the stage, and modeling the desired behaviors.

Specifically, here is what I highly recommend as three pivotal starting points to build a healthy community across the organization that will attract and retain top talent.

1. Develop strong personal relationships

Speaking to the leader now, this means spending time with your people, and not for your own personal gain. This is about investing time with your most valued employees and managers that report to you to learn who they really are.

But don't just get together over a Latte and share hobby stories. The focus should be to deepen relatedness -- by sharing information about yourself and the organization (transparency), showing that you care about them (empathy), and discussing your intentions openly.

The phrase "I must know you to grow you" rings true here (borrowing from Cheryl Bachelder). So get to know about their strengths, find out where their passions are, their gifts and how to apply them.

2. Work collaboratively with others

Great leaders work well together with others more than on their own -- collaborating alongside their tribe instead of separate from them. And they replicate that environment for other leaders to practice.

The best example of this comes from Richard Sheridan, CEO and Chief Storyteller of Menlo Innovations and author of Joy, Inc.

In a recent podcast, he shares about how his "office" is really just a five-foot desk strategically located in the middle of the room in an open-plan workplace. No condo-size office with floor-to-ceiling windows with the best view in town. The CEO of one of the most innovative software development firms in the world is right in the middle of the action.

He says "the team has full economy over the physical space...they can choose the space however they choose" according to how it will be most helpful to them in collaborating on a project.

Because Sheridan cares less about status, position, rank and level, and more about innovation, creativity, and culture, he personally models collaboration that is contagious and palpable. As a result, Menlo has been named a top place to work for several years running.

3. Operate with diversity and listen to many voices

Great leaders celebrate differences, and gain the strength that comes from differences in not only race or ethnicity, but also personality type, gender, faith-tradition, and individuality of style, thought and expression.

They do this with one aim in mind: to build a healthy and productive work community where there is a steady flow and diversity of ideas, and fresh perspectives that lead to results, otherwise what's the point?

They hold themselves accountable to make sure this is happening. For example, they will measure demographics in their talent pipeline of incoming talent as well as existing talent for promoting people equitably.

Bringing it home

The biggest point here is that there is immense power in building healthy and loving communities at work, and connecting to people in an relational, authentic level.


Because relationships drive human satisfaction and performance. We are wired for it. When leaders pave the way, collaboration, productivity, trust and morale will reach new heights.

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