Joyful Workplaces Are Addictive AND Strategic
Joyful workplaces are not generally strategic goals for senior executives. Engaged maybe. Efficient definitely... but joyful?
Executives would do well to reconsider. At first blush, joy seems like a nice to have but it is actually a strategic strength; for employees it is compelling, addictive, and stress-reducing. For organizations, it is a driver of efficiency, trust, and innovation.
Joy is, in business language, a compelling shared value.
Why is Joy So Powerful?
Understanding the value of joy is best understood by reflecting on the implications for individuals and their work.
Consider some of your own fondest memories of work.
What were you doing?
How has joy colored and impacted your experiences?
For me, I remember the industrial-sized can of beans unintentionally included in a snack delivery that made its way around the office collecting stickers as it was passed around as an acknowledgement of a job well done. The summer Friday lunches and BBQs. PowerPoint Karaoke. The #FlipThatSh*t Slack channel where teammates would help reframe a teammates disappointment. Secret Pizza in Las Vegas. Brainstorming discussions that went slightly off the rails. Flying spaghetti monster costumes. Making snow angels at a team offsite.
There were other periods in my career without much joy at work and, in hindsight, that is exactly what made it easy to leave.
Without joy, work is just a job.
Joy is what reenergizes us. It softens frustrations. It releases stress and tension. It make it easier to say hard but important things. Ultimately, it keeps people committed, engaged, and creative. In a business environment concerned with engagement, joy should be at the top of the priority list.
It's 2024 and Our Joy Deficit is Threatening Everything
We've been through a rough few years.
However, at the end of 2023, things ARE looking up.
In the United States, violence and crime are at historic lows. The United States economy is poised for a mythical 'soft landing, although perceptions of the economy are not as rosy. Over eight states have made school lunch for all children free, which, aside from reducing stigma for children, is likely cheaper to operate. The public sector seems to be innovating in ways that elude the private sector.
The private sector instead of addressing egregious governance issues and investing in how innovation and value are created, the wealthiest private sector billionaires are building bunkers, buying vast swaths of American farmland, and trying to colonize space. These wealthy stockholders and executives are struggling to find joy too, which is making them as vulnerable to anxiety as the rest of us.
Anxiety sells, especially in a system set up to maximize financial value over human value.
Too many current leaders are using anxiety to manipulate people for their own benefit by weaving false tales, whether in the public or private sector. They succeed by aligning narratives with justifiable anxiety but then maximize that anxiety by twisting the narrative in ways that prey on human biases and spinning stories about opaque and nefarious problems. When people are anxious this approach is very effective and it puts everyone at risk. Maximizing and accelerating this anxiety with dark narratives designed to attack people's core values literally stops people from being able to think straight.
While our organizations themselves may not yet be quite this anxious, the United States, its governance, and its institutions are at risk. If its institutions cannot survive, then neither will our organizations or countless numbers of individuals.
Teri Kanefield is a legal scholar not known for hyperbole and is concerned enough to voice this concern publicly.
The most alarming aspect of this growing anxiety and distrust is that it is often tilted at imaged windmills and opaque mirages but reinforced and believed by enough other people that it seems real.
The question on everyone's mind is how we pop this bubble or pull people back from these destructive beliefs.
Joy is the Antidote
Without joy, we humans are vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. It is a lot like the physics of skiing; if you are not moving forward with some speed, you are much more likely to fall. Momentum forward increases agility and ability to control your fate. For people, joy is that momentum and the more we are focused on and engage in joy, the less susceptible we are to all sorts of dangers and distractions.
In a back and forth with Scott Monty recently, he pointed me to this discussion of proselytizers trying to use Taylor Swift's success to sow division and anxiety - and why it will backfire.
Swift's success is not about trying to renegotiate the past or stoke fear about each other; her success is built on validation, empowerment, and celebration of who we are now. It is built on connection and joy. Ditto the success of Beyonce and Barbie this year. There is no wedge. There is no anxiety. There is no crack to exploit.
I am learning to appreciate that joy is how we defend ourselves against manipulation. It is not "nice to have" or superficial in a world of anxiety and misinformation. When we are empowered and joyful, we are resistant to manipulation.
If Engagement is the Goal, Cultivate Joy
For those leading organizations, cultivating joy as a means to engagement is worth reflection.
I'm betting joy did not follow a meeting that went smoothly and which successfully got through the intended agenda.
I'm betting joy wasn't at a highly-produced executive town hall.
I'm betting joy didn't show up in that required training, which was deemed successful because it had high compliance (i.e. butts in seats).
Perfection is the Enemy of Engagement
I have often said that perfection is the enemy of engagement.
In organizations, we do so many things with the intention of reducing risk but that actually increase it. We insist on highly scripted executive communications. I can almost hear the sound from Charlie Brown's teacher because people feel the lack of authenticity immediately. Yawn. The scripting is intended to help the executive feel less exposed and to reduce the risk of incorrect information but it results in meaningless, stilted background noise that no one remembers. It lacks any sense of connection. There are times when it is necessary but those situations are few.
You know what sparks joy?
Ugly Christmas sweaters. Karaoke. Unexpected surprises. Pranks. Doing things we are completely unqualified for... together, just for fun. We love being slightly ridiculous and outrageous; not everyday but sporadically to break up the monotony or tension. It makes us smile - and laughter is the gateway to joy.
If you are an executive, cultivating a culture that encourages play and laughter is the best way to increase retention, solve knotty problems, generate ideas, empower individuals to take initiative, innovate, and improve everyone's health and attitude which increases overall efficiency and trust... but you may have to put down your notes.