In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business IlLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Liuba Belkin about her latest research that finds that supervisors who expressed what’s known as companionate love to employees during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 elicited gratitude from them that benefited both the employee and the organization.

Dr. Belkin is an associate professor and the director of the Management Program in Lehigh’s College of Business, and holds the Axelrod Family Endowed Fellowship. Her primary research interests focus on affect and emotions in organizational settings and the role of emotions in negotiations, trust relationships and managerial practices. She also studies the influence of electronic communication media on employee relationships, decision-making and performance.

She spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript

Jack Croft: Your latest study, which has been published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, was conducted in the early stage of the pandemic between March and May of 2020, which was a time of high anxiety and great uncertainty for almost everyone, if not everyone. And it examines the supervisor-subordinate relationship by looking at how supervisors' expression of a moral emotion known as companionate love affected employees during that time. So let's begin by defining those terms. What constitutes a moral emotion?

Liuba Belkin: Moral emotions are those emotions that are linked to the interests or welfare either of society as a whole or at least of persons other than the judge or an agent. So moral emotions can be positive or negative. For example, people often experience negative moral emotions, such as righteous anger or contempt, when others break the law or do things that hurt others. And even though you might not be a victim, just a third-party observer, your anger or contempt signals to the perpetrator that this is not acceptable. There will be punishment for their deeds. So that's a moral, but negative, emotion. Similarly, people very often experience compassion or empathy to others who are not related to them and offer help without expecting any gain in return. So again, any emotion that’s kind of other-oriented and concerns the welfare of the society or other people, that's what constitutes moral emotion.

Gratitude is this wonderful moral emotion that arises when an individual perceives themselves as a beneficiary of someone's intentional behavior or actions to provide them with benefits and improve their welfare. And it can be another person that you experience gratitude towards or it can be you feel lucky, so kind of fate or God. Whatever it is, it's a very important, positive emotion. And we already know from past research that positive moral emotions, such as gratitude, can buffer against and alleviate individuals' negative experiences. They can promote personal well-being, resilience in times of adversity, and improve social relationships.

In fact, in the same Journal of Positive Psychology, there's been a recent review of all these emergent studies on how individual well-being fared during the pandemic. And this study showed that positive moral emotions can help individual well-being. What we did in our research, we kind of extend this line of research by showing that gratitude can not just help well-being, but gratitude can help people adapt more efficiently in early, acute stages of a novel and disruptive crisis such as a pandemic, COVID-19.

Croft: Which brings us to companionate love, which is likely a term that the majority of our listeners have never heard used regarding supervisors in a work setting. And spoiler alert here, but one of the main findings of your study is that supervisors who were able to express companionate love elicited gratitude from their employees, tying that together with what you were just talking about. So what does the term companionate love mean?

Belkin: Companionate love, as the term says, is not a romantic love. Companionate love is a complex and also other-focused moral emotion, which is associated with interpersonal sensitivity and support, so to speak. So it comprises emotions of compassion, care, and love. This is the love that you find and have towards neighbors, friends, when you help others.

What Does Expressing Companionate Love Look Like?

Croft: What are some of the ways that supervisors expressed companionate love during this crisis that you found in your study?

Belkin: Besides measuring — there’s a scale with several items to measure the magnitude of each of these emotions that comprise companionate love — we actually asked our participants to give us examples if they feel that their supervisors expressed it. And what we saw was that there were so many different ways that they described it. It was very enlightening, in a way, to see how people interpret this complex emotion. So some people said, "Well, my supervisor just stopped by and asked how I was doing. How is my family? I have people with certain conditions." And they really authentically —and again, with any expression of emotions, authenticity is really important. So subordinates felt that their supervisor authentically cared and therefore asked questions. And for them, that was enough to feel grateful.

For others, they said, "Well, knowing how tough it is, my supervisor actually brought some supplies that were in deficit during those first months, like toilet paper and some other supplies that disappeared from shelves. And they actually saw it somewhere and bought a couple of things for us." And that person who described this example, she said, "Well, I feel like a part of the family here because I see the supervisor really cares." Others said, "Well, I was crying, and the supervisor asked me how he can help and gave me a hug, and I felt better." Giving a hug can be very efficient, but of course, you should ask people first if it's wanted before attempting it. In that case, it actually helped them to feel better. Or someone received a flexible work schedule because they had to take care of their sick kids. So there are many, many things you can do as a supervisor to express this emotion.

Finding Their Constructive Voice

Croft: You had started out with three hypotheses, and they were confirmed over the course of these surveys that you conducted. What were the three hypotheses, and what do they tell us about the working relationship?

Belkin: First, we thought that genuinely expressing companionate love should evoke feelings of gratitude in subordinates if supervisors express compassion and love. We also thought that this expression should be particularly salient and important for gratitude when employees perceive high uncertainty of a crisis. Because what past research tells us is that when people feel anxious, unsafe, they need some sense of certainty and security, they actually turn to their supervisors for care and compassion and love. And the more employees would feel uncomfortable and uncertain in this crisis, the more important those expressions would be to them and the higher gratitude feelings they would experience, which was the case. Then, based on past research, we know that such emotions as gratitude can actually broaden people's perceptions, what's called action repertoire. So people start to think differently about, let's say, their work. And we thought, "Well, people who feel grateful, they probably will expand, broaden their perspective of what their responsibilities are, going above and beyond, which in turn should really promote their engagement and voice behaviors." And that's exactly what we found in our study.

… We also measured their engagement in proactive, risky behaviors such as … what's called constructive voice — speaking up, talking about troubles. Which is extremely important behavior for organizations to be more resilient and survive because you want your subordinates not to be silent, especially when there's a crisis, [but to] actually speak up. On the other hand, it's a very risky behavior. … When you speak up, it can backfire. Oftentimes, people stay silent if they don't trust their supervisors or there is no good relationship. So expressions of companionate love actually increased not just feelings of gratitude in their subordinates, but they actually promoted this proactive voice behavior, which in the long run is very beneficial to organizations.

Overcoming Obstacles to Showing Compassion

Croft: As you note in your study, and this is a quote, "It seems easy to listen to subordinates acknowledge their suffering and offer emotional support." And it does indeed. So what are some of the main obstacles that prevent supervisors from doing that? And what are the steps organizations can take to help leaders acquire the skills they need to effectively express companionate love and cultivate gratitude from employees?

Belkin: Even though it seems easy to listen to subordinates acknowledge their suffering, offer emotional support, oftentimes, supervisors may not feel either comfortable doing so or they're just not able. They don't know how to do that. With regards to being uncomfortable to express companionate love, we hope that perhaps the examples that I shared with you today that are in the paper and the results of our study can serve as an inspiration to supervisors because they illustrate that subordinates not only appreciate supervisors' expression of companionate love, they really value it and reciprocate these kind acts when possible, such as with proactive engagement and voice.

Regarding the latter problem, inability to express companionate love — and that's oftentimes the bigger problem — there is a wealth of research in clinical psychology showing that compassion training and coaching with interpersonal and emotional management skills can help those who are unfamiliar or unable to do so. For example, brief compassion training using meditation-based techniques such as love and kindness meditation are proven to be effective means for eliciting compassion towards others. It actually encourages people to express more freely these emotions and encourages pro-social behavior even towards strangers.

There is more and more literature in the management field appearing that shows that these interventions are pretty efficient in the short run and also in the long term. So supervisors' companionate love expression is just one of the ways to elicit gratitude. But other methods, such as journal writing, counting one's blessings, or what's called best possible self method, this exercise that promotes the positive view of oneself when someone imagines the best possible future after working hard towards it — all these interventions, they're pretty brief in duration, sometimes a couple of weeks. But they have been shown to have very important strong effects on individual well-being and also behaviors in organizations, and they can effectively elicit subordinates' felt gratitude.

Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin

Liuba Belkin, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Management at Lehigh Business.