Workplace culture: What's love got to do with it?


by Dawn Grimes Kulongowski   |   Michigan Bar Journal


It was a clear day in December 1978 when a United Airlines flight carrying 181 passengers began its descent into the airport in Portland, Oregon. But when Capt. Melburn McBroom attempted to lower the landing gear, he encountered a mechanical problem. He circled the airport while angrily fiddling with the mechanism. Mc-Broom was known by his crew as a hot-tempered boss,1 and one investigator later described him as “an arrogant S.O.B.”2 The crew noticed that the plane was running out of fuel but, frozen in fear of McBroom’s impending rage, they said nothing. The plane crashed in a Portland suburb, killing 10 people.3

While this is an extreme example, it illustrates the high cost of teams that can’t work together effectively. There is a popular phrase in management training: “Stress makes people stupid.”4 When team members are emotional or upset, they don’t learn well and, like McBroom’s crew, they don’t make good decisions.

Imagine a work environment where the leader (or any team member, for that matter) lacks self-control, has a short temper, can’t critique without insult or blame, and has no sensitivity to other people’s feelings. In that environment, no one can operate to their full capabilities. They might be educated, intelligent, and skilled, but if you put them in a situation where they communicate poorly with each other, little will be accomplished. Even the brightest and best shut down in the face of anger, competition, and insensitive criticism.5

According to a Harvard Business School study of toxic work environments, 25% of employees surveyed reported taking their frustrations out on clients, 48% intentionally decreased work efforts, 78% said their commitment to the organization declined, 66% said their performance declined, and 57% said they quit because of a toxic workplace culture.6

Over the last several decades, we have seen a shift in workplace leadership and culture. In the past, chain of command and domineering leadership were emphasized. We have since learned that the most successful leaders are masters of interpersonal skills. Leadership is no longer about dominating underlings but persuading the team toward a common goal. The most successful organizations have teams that care about one another and work together harmoniously.7

Robert Sternberg, a psychologist at Yale University, is an expert in the concept of group IQ. Group IQ is the sum of all the talents and skills of a team of people. While we absolutely want intelligent team members, social harmony is far more important.

“While a group can be no smarter than the sum total of all of their specific strengths, it can be much dumber if its internal workings don’t allow people to share their talents.”8

All things being equal, a group’s ability to work together is the most important determinant of success. In an environment of effective communication, kindness, and empathy, the group’s individual talents are fully realized.9

It is commonly thought that compassion and emotional intelligence — so-called “people skills” — are traits you either have or you don’t. While that belief may be a convenient excuse for avoiding self-improvement, it’s not true. The truth is that these skills can be learned and honed. We can become better leaders and team players by building these skills. Meditation practice is a proven way to do this.10

We are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of several decades of scientific research on meditation. From this research, we know that meditation improves many skills that are useful in a workplace environment: increased self-awareness, increased empathy and emotional intelligence, decreased reactivity, enhanced creativity and conscious decision making, improved ability to see situations with clarity and objectivity, heightened resilience, and concentration.11

Imagine a room with people who have mastered these skills. The results that team gets will be in stark contrast to McBroom’s cockpit. This environment cultivates success for everyone in it. They work together in harmony, recognize the talents and abilities of one another, meet deadlines, hit goals, and strive toward a common purpose.12

About 2,600 years ago, the Buddha introduced a practice called metta meditation. Metta is a Pali word meaning “love” that can also be translated to mean “friendly,” “amicable,” “benevolent,” “affectionate,” and “kind.”13 Today, it’s commonly called loving-kindness meditation. It’s a practice meant to cultivate kindness, compassion, and positive emotions and just like other meditation techniques, it is proven to decrease stress, physical pain, and negative emotions.14

A simple way to start building this practice is “gift giving.” As you make your way through your day, give every person you encounter the gift of silently wishing them happiness and peace — the barista, the cashier, the receptionist, your coworkers. No one is excluded. Look at the person (or think of them) and silently say, “I wish you peace and happiness.” This small habit reduces negative emotions and anxiety and strengthens the area of the brain related to positive emotions and heart health.15

The purest form of loving kindness meditation is more focused and structured:

1. Set a timer. Start with five minutes.

2. Get comfortable. There is no correct position. If you’re comfortable, you’re doing it right.

3. Focus your attention on your breath. Feel the breath come in and go out.

4. Take a moment to give compassion to yourself. Silently say these phrases or choose phrases you feel comfortable with. (The following are just examples.)

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.

5. Take a few deep breaths and envision a good friend; a person who is always on your side and when you think of them, you can’t help but smile. Offer them the phrases:

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.

6. After a few more breaths, envision a neutral person. This is a person you see every day, but you don’t really know them. You don’t like them or dislike them; you’re just aware of them. Offer them the phrases:

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.

7. Now for the hard one: the difficult person. Bring to mind someone with whom you have a grievance. See this person as another being who just wants to be happy. Offer them the phrases:

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.

8. Expand the offering to all living beings — every person, every creature.

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you live with ease.

Your phrases are your home base. When your mind wanders or gets distracted, come back to your phrases.16

We no longer live in an era of “no pain, no gain.” Leaders and innovators at the top of their professions know that building relationships and decreasing stress is the surest road to success. Five minutes of daily meditation can be the first step on the path to happier employees, less turnover, and a more positive and effective workplace culture.


“Practicing Wellness” is a regular column of the Michigan Bar Journal presented by the State Bar of Michigan Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program. If you’d like to contribute a guest column, please email


1. Rogers, A Tale of Two Teams in Crisis: Different Leadership Styles, Different Outcomes, Medium (August 12, 2020) []. All websites cited in this article were accessed May 6, 2022.

2. Noland & Peterson, 13 Plane Crashes That Changed Aviation, Popular Mechan­ics (April 29, 2021) [].

3. Id.

4. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Random House, 1997).

5. Baker, Day & Salas, Teamwork as an Essential Component of High Reliability Organizations, 41 Health Serv Res 1576 (August 2006), available at [].

6. Porath & Pearson, The Price of Incivility, Harvard Business Review (January- February 2013) [https://perma. cc/52LV-TUGQ].

7. Mahanta, Guru Speak: Is there a relationship between Emotional Intelligence and effective leadership?, The Economic Times (October 14, 2011) [https://perma. cc/M53F-LXSA].

8. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Random House, 1997), p 160.

9. Rice, Group Intelligence Correlates More With Social Aptitude Than IQ, Harvard Business Review (October 15, 2012) [].

10. Goleman, How Meditation Fuels Emotionally Intelligent Leaders, Key Step Media (September 19, 2017) [] and Thakrar, How To Develop Emotional Intelligence Using Mindfulness, Forbes (June 11, 2019) [].

11 . Thorpe, 12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation, Healthline (October 27, 2020) [].

12. Emotional Intelligence, pp 159-161 and Valosek et al, Effect of Meditation on Emotional Intelligence and Perceived Stress in the Workplace: A Randomized Controlled Study, 22 Perm J 17 (2018), available at [].

13. Metta: 11 definitions, Wisdom Library (August 17, 2021) [].

14. Ivtzan & Quirk, Soft is hard: building resilience with loving kindness meditation at work, 11 Int J Complement Alt Med 125 (2018) [].

15. Id.

16. Salzberg, Real Happiness at Work (New York: Workman Publishing Co, 2013).