What Romance Novels Can Teach Us About Workplace Culture
During the pandemic, I rediscovered my teenage obsession with romance novels. I have a PhD in English literature, specializing in nineteenth-century love stories, but that was high-brow romance. What I was reading in 2020, on maternity leave with my second child during a full-blown global pandemic, were real romance novels. I’m talking happy endings, dreamy good-guy love interests and sultry bad boys, LGBTQ+ romance, enemies to lovers, bodice rippers, you name it, I read it…and I’m still reading it.
And I’m not the only one.
Sales of romance novels have been booming, in the US, Canada, and the UK, and there are no signs of slowing down.
But what can a growing interest in romance novels – and the novels themselves – teach us about managing and maintaining a positive workplace culture? Turns out, more than you think.
Everyone Wants a Positive Ending
If there is one unifying feature of all romance novels, it’s the happy ending. Readers turn to romance because, in many ways, it’s a fundamentally safe space. No matter what drama you may encounter, you know that the book will end happily, with the two main characters together and in love.
This can tell us something important about our current cultural moment and what employees need.
Even in 2023, with restrictions lifted and everyone mingling like it’s 2019, people are still not okay. A recent study by Robert Half showed that a staggering third of Canadian professionals are experiencing burn-out. Employees are tired, stressed, and overextended – which is why so many are turning to romance novels in the first place.
In designing and maintaining your workplace culture, think about how you can give employees a (G-rated, SFW) positive ending. Efforts related to listening to employees, employee appreciation, mental health, and psychological safety matter and can make a real difference.
As much as I love them, romance novels are the same. In fact, that’s part of why I love them and a key part of why they are so popular in the first place. Readers can find a formula that they love and settle into the satisfaction of experiencing it over and over (and over) again.
What does this teach us?
People (especially stressed, overextended, tired people) appreciate predictability. Policies may not feel sexy, but clearly articulating expectations and rules in a repeatable formula will keep employees coming back for more.
There Doesn’t Always Need to be a Bad Guy
Some people think that a good story requires a villain, but most romance novels prove this wrong. Red, White, and Royal Blue – no bad guy, Beach Read – no bad guy. There are no bad people, just some bad (or maybe just ill-informed) behaviour.
Often in workplace cultures, either intentionally or unintentionally, we establish “us vs. them-isms.” We build unity at our organization by vilifying a competitor or – even worse – by pitching departments or sub-departments against each other. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Think about the “bad guy(s)” at your organization; does that strawman villainy make the culture any better? Likely it doesn’t and it can (and should) be edited out.
People are Smarter Than You Think
People who don’t read romance novels often assume that romance readers aren’t very smart. Even during my PhD, I was sometimes looked down upon by my colleagues for my “popular” research interests.
But anyone who reads romance knows differently: romance novels are actually pretty clever. Sure, they are formulaic, but they are also smart, savvy, relevant, and insightful. Just like the people at your organization.
In building and maintaining your workplace culture, remember that people are smarter than you think. Beware of performative gestures, especially around inclusivity, employee engagement, and mental health – people will see straight through them. Focus on authenticity, transparency, and two-way dialogue to truly build the culture you want to see.
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