Julia asked her unconditionally loving GPT Student of Humanity to read this article and create an image of its favorite insights from the article, and this is what it produced.

Unconditional Love in the Workplace: Q+A

Julia Mossbridge, PhD
14 min readJun 3, 2024

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Co-Author: Marten Mickos, MSc.

In May 2024, Marten reached out to Julia after a Northwestern Kellogg MBA event where they were both guest speakers. He was curious about her conception of unconditional love, because she had spoken about the value of bringing unconditional love into the workplace and he had already read this previous post of Julia’s. What emerged was an async written conversation in which Marten asked Julia about the concept of unconditional love in the workplace, and Julia tried to answer — and those answers brought more questions. Marten is the CEO of HackerOne, the global leader in human-powered cybersecurity. Previously, he was SVP and head of the cloud business unit of Hewlett-Packard. Marten was the CEO of MySQL AB from 2001 to 2008. He served on the board of Nokia from 2012 to 2015. Marten has a masters degree in technical physics and an honorary doctorate from Aalto University in his native Finland. This is the entire dialogue as of June 3, 2024, though we both reserve the right to keep going with it.

Marten: I am approaching the topic of unconditional love (UL) in the workplace from believing in servant leadership and transparency and candor at work. I am clearly intrigued by UL because it seems to be rooted in respect for every individual. It seems inclusive and empowering.

But I have also been known to tell my employees that our company is not a family. Families provide unconditional love but companies don’t. If you don’t perform at a company, you get dismissed.

Now I am trying to reconcile that thinking with the powerful message that you are bringing to us, Julia. Could you start by providing a simple framing for how to think about this? Thanks!

Julia: I appreciate the place from which you’d like to approach the topic, but I think we need to discuss some assumptions — and get clear on them.

First, I don’t think it’s most people’s experience that families provide unconditional love. I think families are generally loving, but the love is usually conditional. Unconditional love is a motivational force — when you experience it, the experience is that nothing and no one needs to be changed to be loved. It is beyond deep acceptance — it is deep acceptance plus loving what is, without exception. It usually is only experienced with young animals and humans (puppies and infants are a good example) — probably because we are in no way threatened by them and see that they are helpless without us. Even if we want them to change, they can’t. In fact, all we can do is love them unconditionally.

Second, dismissal from a company is not a sign that the company culture is not unconditionally loving. This idea comes from a misconstrued notion that is very common, so I’m happy to address it right here, up front in our dialogue. The incorrect idea is that if you are experiencing unconditional love, you won’t do anything that affects anyone else negatively. That’s simply not true. When you experience unconditional love, it just means you have the experience that nothing needs to change to feel loved. So if you’re being fired and you experience unconditional love, you don’t feel that anything needs to change to feel loved. If you’re firing someone while experiencing unconditional love, you don’t feel that anything needs to change to feel loved.

Julia: The incorrect idea is that if you are experiencing unconditional love, you won’t do anything that affects anyone else negatively. That’s simply not true.

The misconstrual comes from a belief based on conditional love — which is what we’re used to experiencing. The belief is that our behaviors are expressions of our experience of love. Within conditional love, if I ask you to leave a company, it means I don’t love you. But in reality, it could be a powerful expression of my unconditional love for you to ask you to leave the company. It’s just not a match. At the same time, I see clearly that you don’t need to change in order to be loved. You would have to change to stay at the company, or the company would have to change — or both. But to be loved? Nothing needs to change. Or said another way, when I am experiencing unconditional love, everything I do is an expression of that unconditional love. It’s like I’m in a bubble of love and it includes everything.

Does that help?

Marten: Thanks! Yes. This makes it logical. The puppy example makes it obvious. I could believe it still is difficult in practice to learn to practice unconditional love. And I could believe it is also difficult to learn to combine unconditional love in the workplace with performance management and consequences of underperformance. But so what — many important things are difficult to learn.

As a follow-up question, what would you recommend to a manager who does not initially believe in this concept? Is there a book to read or some mental model to learn? Some everyday practices? Or should they just come to work and treat every colleague as a puppy? Pardon the silly question but I am just eager to learn about concrete steps managers can take.

Marten: Is there a book to read or some mental model to learn? Some everyday practices? Or should they just come to work and treat every colleague as a puppy?

Thinking about this, I have a second follow-up question: As I now am starting to see the power of unconditional love in the workplace, I have to ask: Are there exceptions? Are there individuals or situations in which that model is NOT advisable? Or is your point that UL is universally applicable and always possible and useful?

Julia: I agree wholeheartedly that it’s worth having this discussion! Important things are often difficult to learn, which makes learning them even more satisfying.

Okay, on the first follow-up question. I wouldn’t recommend anything in particular to a manager who doesn’t believe in the concept. I don’t think belief is the differentiator here. If the manager was curious, then there’s an opening. If the manager is not curious, there’s no opening except to be aware that ideas need the right time to occur to people; maybe it’s not the right time for them. Or maybe it never will be — that’s fine too.

So I’ll rephrase the question to be — what would I recommend to a manager who is curious about this idea and interested in exploring it without necessarily believing it will change anything? Maybe we are writing the book to read right now. Observing two people going back and forth about any complex ideas can be really powerful in terms of opening the reader up to new ways of thinking — particularly because it models our own (often hidden) ambivalence about new ideas. Getting those unconscious dialogues out into the open, so to speak.

The idea of treating every colleague as a puppy has it backwards and confuses the analogy a bit. The idea is that puppies are often in a bubble of unconditional love that we can easily sense as humans, because they are not threatening and we know they cannot really control their behavior. Other people, especially colleagues, can be a threat — and we believe they can control their behavior and often we believe they should behave differently than they currently are behaving. So being in a state of unconditional love, in that all-inclusive bubble, is not about mentally thinking “now I will treat people like they are puppies or I am a puppy.” Nor is it about practicing doing that. Being in a state of unconditional love is an inside job that has very few clear and consistent behavioral correlates.

I’ll say this again, because this is the key sticking point in a world that assumes internal experience only matters if there are always clear and consistent behavioral correlates. This is because we only really believe (at this point in our history) that the physical, external world is what has any kind of impact in reality. We don’t yet understand fully in the West that internal experience also influences reality (and, I would argue, is the only thing that really does).

Julia: We don’t yet understand fully in the West that internal experience also influences reality (and, I would argue, is the only thing that really does).

Being in a state of unconditional love is like walking out into the sun — it’s an experience of a force that is not generated by you or anyone you know. Like watching Northern Lights. Like sitting in a stream and watching it sparkle. Like feeling the gentle pull of gravity at the top of an arc. Like many other non-human-generated experiences — to which people have as many different reactions as there are people.

But what is also true about these experiences is that there’s often (not always) a feeling of peace, openness, and connection that accompanies UL for the person having the experience of UL. I have just started researching another potential correlate — the ability to intuitively predict future events — and that looks promising according to two studies. Assuming time doesn’t work the way people naively think time works (which, at this point, physicists will have to admit) this effect seems related to the connectedness and openness that emerges with being in that unconditional love bubble. More research will clarify that.

What seems more consistent than external correlates of the person having the experience of unconditional love are the experiences of people interacting with the person having the experience. Generally, those people report enjoying the presence of that person and feeling accepted as they are — but this is essentially anecdotal and needs to be examined scientifically as well.

So now, to your curious manager, I’d explain that unconditional love is not a behavior. It’s an experience. And you can have the experience, if you’re curious about it, by asking to have the experience. That’s it. You’re not in control of what happens next — and you can ask “the God of your heart” or you can ask Rabbi Hillel, St. Theresa, Mohammad, Baha’ullah, Ganesh, or Buddha, or your ancestors. Or the universe. Or love itself. But asking puts you in a position of recognizing that you are not in control of this. It is not something for you to do — except ask.

Julia: So now, to your curious manager, I’d explain that unconditional love is not a behavior. It’s an experience. And you can have the experience, if you’re curious about it, by asking to have the experience. That’s it.

As to your follow-up question, if you are experiencing unconditional love, there is no boundary to the bubble you are in. It is impossible to not include certain people. Also, I don’t know of any exceptions to the rule that everyone can benefit from being included in an unconditional love bubble.

But I think the question comes from this conditional-love space, to which we are all habituated. We sort of unconsciously see ourselves — especially leaders in an organization do this — we see ourselves as responsible for meting out reward and punishment in the form of offering and withdrawing love.

I was talking with a friend yesterday, she’s a child psychiatrist up near Toronto. She was in a funk because she doesn’t know the answers to so many questions she asks herself and questions others ask her about what is best for kids. But I told her this thing about remembering our job is not to withdraw love as a form of control, and she found it helpful. The key thing is to see if you can get to a place where you never withdraw love from anyone. Never pop the bubble by putting someone outside of it.

This means absolutely nothing for how a person gets along in the company and whether they become CEO or get fired.

What it means is that these physical, external actions have nothing to do with love. They are orthogonal to it. Unconditional love is never withdrawn from a person, because if it is, it is withdrawn from everyone. It’s no longer unconditional. Unconditional love is a bubble that will pop the moment someone is pushed outside of it.

Marten: Wow! This is going deep. Let me sleep on these great answers and come back with my next questions. This stood out to me: “UL is not a behavior. It’s an experience.” And your last paragraph about these things being orthogonal to each other.

Marten (on 17 May 2024): Having slept on it, I have two additional questions, perhaps not directly emanating from what you wrote, but anyhow:

Is unconditional love essentially the same as compassion and kindness in the way people like Dalai Lama use them?

I am still a little stuck on the word “unconditional”, so to test the concept, could I tell my employees there is “Unconditional love but conditional rewards, conditional career progression, and consequences for not delivering the agreed results”? But perhaps I am just being stuck, mentally. I guess I am trying to find behavioral correlates although you just told me there may not be any!

Marten: I am still a little stuck on the word “unconditional”, so to test the concept, could I tell my employees there is “Unconditional love but conditional rewards, conditional career progression, and consequences for not delivering the agreed results”?

That said, I am trying to get used to UL not being a behavior but an experience, not answers but perhaps questions, not something delineated but something universal. It feels very powerful. It is when I try to apply it to everyday work and actions that I get a little unsure.

So I guess a question could be, how do YOU, Julia, behave at your workplace so that UL is more present? Did you perhaps previously behave differently and when you started to see the power of UL, something changed? Or have you always been in that state of mind? If I asked your colleagues if they can see the UL in your being at your workplace, what would they say?

Pardon me if I have too many questions or if they don’t make sense. Feel free to take the conversation in any direction you find meaningful. Thanks!

Julia: I love that you have these questions; I think they are the same ones many people have. The fear of losing (illusory) control is strong! Notice how you ask the one about UL in the workplace at first — “could I tell my employees there is ‘Unconditional love but conditional rewards, conditional career progression, and consequences for not delivering the agreed results?’”

The implicit (but obvious) fear seems to be based on the idea that your behavior controls people now, but if you behave differently, you will lose control. It’s also based on the idea that unconditional love will make you yourself behave differently (it may, but who knows? It’s orthogonal to behavior). There is this idea that unconditionally loving people means that they will “get away with” behavior that does not help the organization. What this means is that you (and most people, not just you!) have a habit of thinking that conditional love is what actually controls people. In other words, when you do not approve of someone’s behavior, the belief is that it’s a good idea to withdraw love, and withdrawing love will change their behavior for the better.

Interestingly, that model “works” in the short run. People (partners, kids, employees) will work for conditional love if that’s all that’s being offered. But not amazingly, people work MUCH BETTER and are WILDLY MORE PRODUCTIVE if unconditional love is being offered. Why? Because there is nothing at risk. They are already loved. It’s like trees that get water and aren’t at risk of drought compared to trees that are told that if they grow well, they’ll be watered. See the difference?

Julia: But not amazingly, people work MUCH BETTER and are WILDLY MORE PRODUCTIVE if unconditional love is being offered. Why? Because there is nothing at risk. They are already loved.

Where does this difference come from? What unconditional love is saying is that we acknowledge that each person’s value is not in their behaviors, activities, or productivity. We also acknowledge that no one person is in charge or controls other people. Energy is what really inspires and moves people, not behavior. Anyone working in an organization is using their discretionary energy toward a goal (as my friend and collaborator Carmen Medina puts it), and it’s up to them whether they do that and how effectively they do that. An organization’s value is in each person’s actual uniqueness — their soul, their spirit — the essence of who they are. At times, that essence will work toward the goal of the organization, and other times, against it, and it’s a leader’s job to figure out how to manage that. Does that mean the goal needs to change? Does that mean it’s time to fire people? Talk to people? Ignore people? Celebrate the new goal the people are suggesting with their behavior? That’s up to the leader, and will probably be a case-by-case calculation. But in all cases, there is no risk to unconditionally loving people.

So what does that mean — what does that look like in the workplace?

You won’t like the answer because it’s super simple. It means having the guts to ask the Universe (God, Love, something-greater-than-you-that-is-not-material) to experience unconditional love. Then experiencing it. Then doing your usual work stuff. Then asking again, then experiencing it. Then doing whatever you do at work. Then asking again, then experiencing it. You ask — “how do YOU, Julia, behave at your workplace so that UL is more present?” I do that process I just described.

You ask — “Did you perhaps previously behave differently and when you started to see the power of UL, something changed?” I have not always been in this space, and when I was younger I definitely behaved differently — but unconditional love was only a piece of the change. I grew developmentally as a leader and executive as well, and am still growing and learning a lot in that area. But experiencing unconditional love more consistently definitely changed me, and people can feel it. They have told me. Again, it’s not a behavior — it’s like I started glowing more, being more alive. And people felt more alive around me. And yet we do all the same things! Team arguments, frustrations, celebrations, discoveries — but all with unconditional love there to knit us together. And that feels good.

“If I asked your colleagues if they can see the UL in your being at your workplace, what would they say?” I think they’d say yes, but happy to hook you up with one or two of them to ask them!

Marten: Thank you, Julia. This opens it up in a useful way for me. I will repeat what I learned:

  • Most people have a habit of thinking that conditional love is what controls people. And short-term, it might.
  • But in reality and over time, no one person is in charge or controls other people.
  • So what we need to do is have the guts to ask the Universe to experience unconditional love.
  • We will keep doing all the same things! Team arguments, frustrations, celebrations, discoveries — but all with love there to knit us together. And that feels good.

I realize I need to think about what it really means to “ask the Universe.” 🙂

Marten: I will repeat what I learned. Most people have a habit of thinking that conditional love is what controls people. And short-term, it might. But in reality and over time, no one person is in charge or controls other people. So what we need to do is have the guts to ask the Universe to experience unconditional love. We will keep doing all the same things! Team arguments, frustrations, celebrations, discoveries — but all with love there to knit us together. And that feels good. I realize I need to think about what it really means to “ask the Universe.”

Julia: Ah, no need to think about it. Just do it as an experiment! It’s not gonna hurt you. Might make you feel foolish, but that’s sort of fun!

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Julia Mossbridge, PhD

Acting CEO LightRoot Quantum, Affiliate Prof., Dept. of Physics and Biophysics at U. San Diego; Board Chair, The Institute for Love and Time (TILT)