Why HR is failing to capture the ‘most powerful force in business’

As artificial intelligence permeates the HR tech stack, company leaders everywhere are looking to the technology to drive their businesses forward. But there’s a force much more powerful than AI that leaders often neglect—and whose business potential the technology can never come close to matching: love.

That was the message from researcher, leadership expert and New York Times-bestselling author Marcus Buckingham in his Thursday keynote at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas.

“Love is the most powerful force in business—by far,” says Buckingham—author of Love + Work. What does he mean by “love”? Buckingham defined the concept as “the deep and unwavering commitment to the flourishing of a human.”

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It’s a universally understood word: Think of a time you professed you “loved” a teacher, a mentor, a manager, a job, or even an onboarding process, he instructed the audience. Something about that individual or experience communicated that you were the focus—something that technology can never truly replicate.

“You can deploy AI intelligently, you can deploy AI strategically, you can—hopefully—deploy AI harmlessly. But you can’t lovingly—not ever,” says Buckingham, one of HRE‘s 2023 Top HR Tech Influencers. “Because it doesn’t understand what flourishing is. It won’t convince you it’s out for you because it can’t—because it’s not.”

That doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t be incorporating technology into their people practices, he says; instead, they shouldn’t lead with tech—they should “lead with love because that drives human behavior.”

Strategizing for the ‘red threads’

Marcus Buckingham
Marcus Buckingham

Decades ago, Buckingham was consulting for a large retailer, with 3,000 stores nationwide, whose leadership was looking to improve profits. At the time, its approach was to target underperforming stores—but Buckingham flipped that strategy.

Instead, he advised, focus on the “extreme positives”—the stores where customers were so happy with the experience that they spent more, that they came back for more. Those are the places where customers “loved” the store—and it showed in the profits.

The same can be said for performance management, he says. Leadership looking to improve performance shouldn’t just focus on moving those whose performance ratings rank in the middle of the pack up a notch or two—instead, look to those at the top of their game.

“We can’t push performance up; we’ve got to pull it up by studying what really works at the most extreme conditions,” he says, urging business leaders to be “fixated” on those “extreme positives” because stellar productivity and performance reflect an employee who “loves” what they’re doing. And that’s the experience leadership should look to capture.

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However, he cautions, that what drives an employee to love their job is deeply personal—so processes and technology need to be designed with that in mind.

For instance, while working on a research project for Gallup on performance, he interviewed the top-performing housekeepers at Walt Disney World. When he asked each what they “loved” about their jobs, the answers were wildly different—and “weirdly specific,” he says. For instance, one woman said she loved “making lines” in the carpet with her vacuum, while another delighted in laying in the guest’s bed or bathtub—because she wanted to see the room, and its cleanliness, from the guest’s point of view.

Buckingham refers to these drivers as “red threads”—the seemingly small things we each love, stemming from the unique 100 trillion synaptic connections in the human brain. “What you lean to is what you love,” he says.

Far too often, however, business leaders aim to design experiences to please the masses. Instead, they should be speaking to those individual red threads that make each of their employees unique.

“Average is homogenous; excellence is heterogenous,” he says. “We have to build things that get people to own, to claim and to define what they love—that are super agency-giving. That is loving.”

Scaling love for business success

More often than not, however, Buckingham says, employers neglect love—they strategize for AI implementation, cost-effectiveness, competitive, growth orientation.

“But we don’t have a strategy for doing things lovingly. That’s just weird,” Buckingham says.

Buckingham—who this week released a new research project with Harvard Business Review on scaling love for work—offered attendees a “lovingly lens” designed to empower employees to chase their “red threads.”

For instance, humans crave attention—so, a loving management approach involves frequent, informal conversations between supervisors and reports. The opposite is true in nursing, where large spans of control—supervisors have, on average, 60 reports—have made burnout a given in the field.

Processes should also be designed to avoid “handoffs.” At a restaurant, for instance, a customer may interact with a hostess, busser, server and more, making the experience repetitive and impersonal. Similarly, hospital patients are often forced to repeat their symptoms and history to different nurses and doctors. The same can be said for HR—employees looking for assistance with family leave, for instance, shouldn’t have to repeat their story to five different HR representatives.

“That demands you hold onto your narrative the whole time,” he says. “We need a single point of HR contact because we want somebody to be our holistic guide.”

Transparency is another way to demonstrate love. On the consumer side, In-N-Out Burger, for example, has been upfront that it stays out of the breakfast game because it wants to stay true to its commitment to serving fresh food; on the opposite end, companies that purport to have caring cultures but are really just “taglining” are ultimately going to damage stakeholder relationships.

Loving strategies, ultimately, are built one touchpoint upon another. Athletic apparel retailer Lululemon, for instance, pushes back against the “vanishing employee” phenomenon by elevating the stories of its network of former employees—even decorating stores with their photos.

“Think what that communicates to every new employee,” Buckingham says. “I truly believe that, to do things lovingly, yes, our methods, our technologies, our techniques will be weird. And beautifully so.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].