Recently, online fashion retailer Net-a-Porter caused a viral sensation with its #WorldMostLovedCEO video that featured an over-the-top farewell celebration for its departing CEO, Mark Sebba.
In a flash-mob-esque event that was performed and broadcast across its offices worldwide, thousands of employees were joined by a choir, samba dancers, a mariachi band, and more to give Sebba a final honor. They were singing, dancing, clapping, and hugging to the tune of Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” as Sebba walked the long path from the lobby of the headquarters to his desk.
While the employees’ performance was pitch-perfect, it was a genuine expression of not only their respect, but their love for their CEO who was retiring after 11 years on the job. The firm’s employees generously paid tribute to Sebba’s legacy and allowed themselves to be sentimental for a joyful moment.
Watching the video made me wonder: Why isn’t there more room for sentimentality in business every day?
Sentimentality is our “sweetest fear,” as the writer Leslie Jamison points out in her essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e).” It reflects our horror of our very own banality, our revelation that we are not at all distinct from one another but rather feel the same universal feelings, like Pavlov’s dogs.
Most of the time business is a powerful tool for fighting sentimentality, and our fear thereof. It strives to be devoid of double meaning; it is, at best and at worst, explicit, unambiguous, and literal. “Business-like” behavior is the very opposite of sentimentality, and sentimentality is the antidote to “professionalism.” For good reason: We don’t want an airplane pilot to be sentimental, or a lawyer, or a prison warden.
Yet something is missing in our work lives. “From a professional viewpoint, unfortunately, I had to make the decision to let you go.” There is little sentimentality, little sweetness in these lines; and HR departments will always advise you to keep it that way: “no sugarcoating”–“no pity please”–“stick with the facts.” “We maintain this brand merely for sentimental reasons,” also is a familiar line. In our fiercely competitive markets, clearly, too much love will kill you.
Bruce Mau, the design visionary, recently gave a commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with a lot of “love” in it:
”Imagine a world where we all worked on the things we love the most.”
“The work you love needs you.”
“Be prepared for the love of your life.”
“Everything you have learned here at RISD is in preparation for a life of love.”
This was probably not what his audience had expected, but Mau reminded students of a simple truth we all seem to have forgotten: that every education must be a sentimental education.
We generally believe we can afford sentimentality only once we have accumulated enough victories and scars or long before the soul-numbing routine of “the middle” kicks in. For most of our professional lives, ridicule lurks around the water cooler. We are afraid of being accused of losing control over our rational command on things. We are afraid of being less sophisticated than we thought. Being sentimentally attached to something that means a lot to us makes us vulnerable.
Jason Wisdom is a cofounder of The Design Gym, a boutique consultancy that offers design thinking classes for Fortune 500 organizations. He stresses the importance of vulnerability in innovative business environments to his clients.
“The most sophisticated methodologies, the heaviest R&D, the most immersive customer research won’t get you far with your innovation if there is no trust,” he says. And trust is the product of vulnerability. Design thinking requires design feeling, and, in that sense, sentimentality is the lubricant for ideation. In fact, any big idea is a sentimental cause: something both foolish and obvious that might initially embarrass us, but also something profoundly true that connects us with others.
In times of big data and quantified selves, sentimentality has only grown in importance. It is our bulwark against cold and increasingly artificial intelligence, putting easily accessible, trigger-happy fabricated feelings against machine-made moods and sentiments.
“The great question isn’t whether machines can think, but whether human beings can still feel,” Manohla Dargis pointed out in a New York Times review of the movie Her, in which the protagonist falls in love with his operating system.
Maya Angelou’s famous words come to mind: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” Business has perfected the art–and increasingly also the science–of making us feel; it has systematically commoditized emotions and serialized sentimentality. But just because something has successfully scaled, it needn’t be less precious.
Sentimentality is the suit that fits us all, and yet each of us wears it differently.
As leaders and employees: Let’s not be afraid of the full range of human emotions, even if some of them may seem too sweet. In fact, let’s make sentimentality a unique value proposition, a competitive advantage, a core tenet of our businesses and careers. Let’s use it as an easy access point to those rare emotions that are deeper and more hidden, hoping that they will make our companies and economies more human. Wouldn’t that be sweet?
—Tim Leberecht is the chief marketing officer of global design and architecture firm NBBJ, which has helped Amazon, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, Samsung, Tencent, and others create meaningful places and experiences. He is also the author of the forthcoming book The Business Romantic (Harper Business).