Not-so serious business

I enjoy my work. If I’m being completely honest, what I mean to say is, I have fun doing what I do. I laugh. A lot. Too much? I’ve also caught myself more times than I’d like to admit, at the end of a call with a client in advance of an onsite program, telling them just how much I am looking forward to the program and what fun we are going to have together. This can sometimes seem strange because often these programs deal with weighty matters, but we do have a splendid time together, laughing and relaxed as we talk about plane crashes and crisis leadership, or about the leadership lessons we can extract from battlefield history. Am I not taking this serious business of business seriously enough?

Partly this is simply my nature – I value joy and pleasure and fun. I believe we can work hard and play hard at the same time. But when we are talking about learning and development, enjoyment is a relevant part of the serious business. Taking the growth process and taking ourselves too seriously can actually undercut our efforts. Learning is facilitated when experiences are enjoyable and is stifled when people are uncomfortable. And if it isn’t already clear, learning shouldn’t just be happening during training and development opportunities. Your employees and your organization needs to be learning around the clock to stay successful.

There is compelling neuroscience research to back up this notion, that more pleasant cognitive-emotional states facilitate learning. For example, retention is improved when learning is associated with strong positive emotion. Pleasant feelings result in greater dopamine production, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the memory centers and promotes the release of acetylcholinem, which increases focused attention. On the flip side, PET and fMRI studies show that stress and anxiety interfere with learning and memory consolidation and storage processes.

Humor is a particularly interesting way to usher people into these beneficial states, to capture attention and increase relaxation and positive feeling. Who doesn’t love to laugh? And yet, how much laughter do you hear pealing through the halls of your offices? Allowing ourselves some levity doesn’t just benefit the learning process. None of us are immune from stress, and the truth is for most of us it’s part of our natural habitat. Laughter creates a physiological effect that decreases stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Humor offers us a quick-release value that brings us back into a positive emotional state.

This all takes on greater import when you imagine the impact of emotional contagion. Imagine a recent stressful period in your organization. The negative emotional energy in the office was likely palpable. Stress is unavoidable, but when it gets into an unproductive zone or perpetuates across time, it can diminish creativity, squelch learning, cause people to narrow their focus, or lead people to hunker down and isolate themselves. Happily, positive emotions can be “caught” as well, and laughter shared with others can create a positive snowball effect on your team and help reestablish equilibrium.

I’m not suggesting we ditch our day jobs for stand-up comedy or stop taking our serious business seriously. An office full of class clowns isn’t going to serve you any better than one full of cranky curmudgeons. But by finding an effective interplay between serious work and lighter states of being, we can better harness the mental flexibility and openness that foster new ideas and improve problem solving.

Every year around this time, I reflect on a theme that feels like it would make a positive impact on my personal and professional life across the next year. Last year we talked about gratitude. This year I keep returning to the concept of enthusiasm: intense and eager interest and enjoyment. It connotes active engagement and positive emotion – states that we’ve just shown facilitate learning and which help us manage stress. And yet, there is a strange cultural constraint around enthusiasm – among adults in general but in business more specifically. It seems unseemly, immature, unprofessional – or even just uncool – to care too much. Picture a small child laughing and clapping with glee upon learning something new. That quality of exuberant, joyful discovery got left behind in kindergarten for most of us.

What would happen if we allowed ourselves to find ways to approach our work more enthusiastically? If we gave ourselves and others the gift of a good laugh when tensions are rising? If we recognized that the ongoing cycle of learning, growth, and performance  is sustained by positive feeling?

That sounds like a pretty good place to work.