I admit, it was a pretty serene environment when we were coming up with a list of our company's core values.
There we were, sitting at Travis' dining room table. Coffee had been made. A black lab was sleeping near my feet. An acoustic version of Outkast's "Hey Ya" was wafting in from a bluetooth speaker in the kitchen. It was all very chill.
Still, I did not foresee that we'd end up with "love" at the top of the list. As we talked through our values and the characteristics we actually lived out as a company to both clients and employees, though, it was clear we were shooting all around the target. Travis captured it. Weren't we really talking about love?
We put it at the top of the list, and if I had to, I think I'd drop every other core value we had in order to keep that one front and center.
What Love Isn't
Several languages have multiple words for "love" depending on what facet or nuance of love you mean. English doesn't do this, though, so we end up using the same word for everything.
We love our spouses.
We love our children.
We love our friends.
We love fried chicken.
We love that restaurant.
"Love" does not mean the same thing in all of those statements (at least I hope not). When we talk about what love looks like in a corporation, it's probably important to differentiate what we do and don't mean by love.
If we think of love in a very generalized way, we might think of all kinds of crazy scenarios this might create in a corporate environment. Do we sit around a fire in the break room and sing songs? Do we give each other backrubs? Do we yell things at each other like, "Thanks for those requirements! You complete me!"
(I will neither confirm nor deny if that last thing has happened in our office.)
But at Integrity, love is not something generic. In fact, it isn't even a feeling. When we talk about love, we are not talking about warm, fuzzy feelings of affection. We certainly hope everyone has those feelings about people in their lives! It may be asking too much to ask an Integriteer to feel warm, fuzzy affection for all their coworkers and all of their clients all of the time. It might make for an interesting reality show.
So, if we're not talking about the emotions people associate with love or strong affections or whatever, then what are we left with?
What Is Love (Baby Don't Hurt Me)?
Love, as we value and practice it at Integrity, is defined like this:
Love is the commitment to another's welfare, even if that commitment might disadvantage you in some way.
The first thing you'll notice is that "business love" is a commitment. We pursue it even when we don't feel like it. Commitment is what gets you into the gym when you'd rather binge watch Netflix. Commitment is about defining the kind of person (or organization) that you want to be even if, at any given moment, you feel like taking a very different path.
People may be surprised to learn that software development isn't always fast cars and swimming pools full of champagne. Some days it may be very fun, challenging, and fulfilling, but other days it can be pretty mundane or even boring. Some days, our teammates are the greatest people we can think of. Other days, we'd rather be coding locked away in a bomb shelter.
But love is a commitment. We commit to delivering value to our clients even if what we're working on that day isn't terribly exciting. We commit to contributing to our team's effort even if we feel like isolating ourselves or coasting under the radar.
Commitment is not anti-emotion. We love doing exciting work, and we love it when our team is clicking along in the zone. Commitment recognizes, though, that feelings aren't enough to carry you consistently through the long haul, and that's where the strength of your commitment comes in.
Love, as a corporation value, focuses on promoting the well-being and prosperity of the object of that love.
There is nothing wrong with loving ourselves, and this is both an obligation and something we try to promote within our teams. Every team member should feel comfortable sharing with their team what they need for their own well-being, and if a team is committed to the principle of love, they will figure out what they can do to meet that need.
One of my favorite stand-ups in my entire career is when a teammate said their dog had died (that's not the part I liked) and they didn't get any work done the day before; we simply took over that person's tasks for a little bit until they could get their feet under them.
At the same time, in a corporate environment, people typically do not need help pursuing their own welfare. That's almost the default. It's almost as if everyone else is a competitor for limited resources, and we're out to get as much as we can for ourselves. Whether it's time, money, or office supplies, something about business almost conditions us to maximize our own benefit.
But love prompts us to question those instincts. Slamming out some junk code in a hurry just to get a boring feature done so I can move on to something more interesting might be best for me, but is it best for my client who will have to support this project long term? Is it best for my team who may have to work with this code or whose reputation might be associated with this code? Have a truly made their welfare a priority, or am I only concerned with what will benefit myself?
At the same time, we aren't necessarily committing ourselves only to doing those things that the other person or organization will like. We are out for their welfare. That can sometimes mean difficult conversations. That can mean giving advice or making recommendations that may not be popular. That can mean sharing bad news early. That can mean having difficult conversations about timelines early in the project instead of telling people what they want to hear until it's too late.
Love commits us to considering what is best for others and pursuing that.
Even If We're Disadvantaged in Some Way
This is probably the most difficult aspect of "business love" (or love in general) and also the easiest to abuse if we're not careful.
Ideally, everyone pursuing the value of love results in good situations for everyone all around. We're all working to promote each other's welfare. I don't have to worry so much about getting myself ahead because you're also working to promote that, and you don't have to worry so much about it because I've got your back.
Over the long term, everyone looking out for one another produces a great world for everyone. In a single, specific circumstance, however, acting out of the value of love may mean potentially putting yourself at a disadvantage, at least for the short term.
I touched on this example a little in the last point. Let's say I'm tired and bored and sick of what I'm working on, so I'm just going to slam out some hack just to get the thing working. Short term, I may feel that's what's best for me.
But love calls us to look at a bigger picture than what benefits us in the short term. Slamming out some hack might be good for me right now, but it's not good for my client or my team. Working on a better solution when I don't feel like it or coming to standup when I don't feel like it or not billing a client while we're bringing a new team member up to speed all disadvantages me in some way, but I have to be willing to absorb that disadvantage in order to promote the welfare of someone else.
Long term, I would argue that doing so is actually best for me in the long run. Writing a good solution when I don't feel like it will cause less problems for myself and my client down the road. The quality I dedicate myself to building into the solution will continue to build trust, which translates into more business.
Skipping standup when I'm busy might bring me a short term benefit, but now my team doesn't know where I got with the work that was entrusted to me. They don't know if I need help, they can't help me, and I don't know who else in my team needs help. By going to standup when it disadvantages me to do so, not only is my team helped, but they know they can trust me that, if I do miss standup, it's because it was truly necessary.
Not billing a client when we bring a new person onto their project costs me actual dollars, but by doing so, our clients know that I am protecting their welfare even at my own expense. This builds trust and, not only does it make future business likely, it lays a relational foundation that's priceless during the ups and downs of a project. Having a difficult discussion with a client who knows that I'm on their side is a very different discussion than with one who suspects I'm trying to benefit at their expense.
Love does not equate to being a doormat. Love does not mean allowing people to take advantage of you or never telling anyone when you need something from them. You can easily see how this dynamic can become one-sided and even abusive. Even in the workplace, it's not uncommon for an organization to demand a lot of their employees while not being equally willing to invest in their well-being. That's always seemed weird to me; companies will demand total loyalty from an employee but will not feel a similar obligation to be loyal to them.
At the same time, it's not really love if I only look after your welfare when it serves my advantage. Anyone can do that, even if they don't care about your welfare at all. If looking after your welfare costs me something, then you know I'm committed to it.
Does This Work in Business?
The answer to that question depends a lot on what you count as success.
If success means "making as much money as we possibly can no matter what," then, no, having love be a core value is probably not the way to do that. Love costs us money as we disburse profits to employees and financially shield our clients from the risk that comes as we bring on new hires. Love informs how we do our projects, how we staff them, and all the contractual arrangements around them - and all of this is designed so that clients know that we're taking care of them, not necessarily how much money we can possibly squeeze out of the deal.
If success means "we only do work we like," then love can get in the way of that as well, at least from time to time. I might enjoy working in the middle tier, but if my team is trying to get a feature out the door and all the remaining tasks are front end, guess what work I'm going to be doing! Love means that I am fully engaged in the task of helping my team deliver value to my client to the best of my ability, even if it doesn't happen in a form that fits my preferences at the time.
But if success means "creating a world where people are bringing value to each other by looking out for one another," then this works great. Employees feel safe and find joy in working on a team that has their back, even if the work on a given day isn't exactly thrilling. Clients feel like we always have their best interest at heart and, yes, that does translate into dollars. But more than that, it translates into solid, healthy relationships and a good reputation.
The money comes, but the money is a derivative product - a side effect - of trying to treat our fellow human beings the way everyone should be treated and receiving that treatment from them in turn. We're committed to this vision, and that's why love is a perfect core value for us.