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What love can teach leaders about driving employee engagement

"The more self-expanding a job is, the higher the commitment to it, which is why leaving a job that adds to your sense of self is so devastating."

5 min read



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Is there a connection between falling into lasting love and learning to love your work?

That was the question I posed to Gary Lewandowski, a relationship scientist and psychology professor at Monmouth University who has spent his entire career studying what makes romantic relationships successful. After all, I thought, most of us put a lot of effort into our relationship with our jobs, maybe even as much effort as we expend in our romantic relationships. Certainly, we devote chunks of time to working — over 85,000 hours during the course of a lifetime. Perhaps the only other thing we spend more time doing is sleeping.

The link between a lasting love relationship and falling in love with your work is rooted in a psychological concept called self-expansion, which is our fundamental motivation to improve and grow as a person, ultimately increasing our sense of our own identity. And, research shows, romantic relationships are a primary vehicle for self-expansion. The more we engage with a loved one and create experiences and opportunities for personal growth, the stronger the bonds become between us and a romantic partner.

Reality television shows that seek to expedite (and perhaps exploit) the romantic process provide good examples of the power of self-expanding activities. ABC’s show The Bachelor,” for example, pairs virtual strangers in idyllic settings, or sends them on dates that provide the couple with a challenge to experience and overcome together.

“This is all self-expansion,” Lewandowski explains. While we may fall in love based on chemistry, his research proves that we stay in love because we continue to introduce novelty, challenge and shared interests into our romantic relationships.

The same concept can be applied to fueling employee engagement. Researchers have shown that jobs that introduce elements of self-expansion are viewed more positively by employees than jobs lacking them.

Lewandowski highlighted a study that was designed to explore this concept in which two groups of employees responsible for routine data entry tasks were given an unrelated challenge prior to beginning their work. One group was asked to carry a series of boxes from one side of the room to the other. Another group was asked to use chopsticks to carry a series of items from one side of the room to the other. While the task using chopsticks was more difficult to master, the group that did so reported more job satisfaction at the end of its data-entry shift than the group that was asked to lift boxes by hand.

“The more self-expanding a job is, the higher the commitment to it,” says Lewandowski. “Which is why leaving a job that adds to your sense of self is so devastating.”

There are three major insights from this research that can inform leaders who are seeking to build or deepen employee engagement:

  1. It may sound counter-intuitive, but working harder actually builds self-expansion. However, the type of work matters. Piling on assignments that do not offer your employees true growth opportunities has the opposite affect by sapping energy and enthusiasm.
  2. Finding ways to encourage employees to want to stretch themselves is important. Spend time exploring the kinds of assignments that each member of your team would enjoy experiencing. Aligning these assignments with the natural interests and passions of the employee may provide an even more powerful a vehicle for self-expansion.
  3. Create experiences that will allow your employees to learn more about their current job, but also consider the benefit of cross-training. When employees learn about the work of their colleagues by actually performing it, they grow personally, and so do positive team interactions.

Once we’ve mastered the art of creating a self-expanding work environment, I asked, what advice Lewandowski might give us about our personal relationships.

“Keep dating,” he said with twinkle in his eyes. “Keep dating.”


Alaina Love is chief operating officer and president of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.

When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on TwitterFacebookYouTube or her blog.

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