Can the workplace be joyful?

In discussions with various executives I’ve been hearing a lot about their difficulties building positive relationships with work colleagues and/or with their teams.  This very crucial element of our work life — relationship-building — is often ignored or under-valued.

Managers can forget that the people they manage… are people.  We are a social, relational species.  The social environment that is created in the workplace can foster innovation, creativity and collaboration or it can foster demoralization, competition and isolation.

I’ve been reading the myriad of articles about Steve Jobs that have appeared this week.  In creating this blog post I was reflecting on this quote from Roberto Verganti’s HBR blog post, Steve Jobs and Management by Meaning :

“Managing by meaning” is recognizing that people are human: they have rational, cultural, and emotional dimensions, and they appreciate the person who creates a meaning for them to embrace.

An executive shared with me that she is tasked with building a team within a corporate culture that is very individually oriented where competition rules.  As is  often the case in this type of corporate culture, managers do not step back and think about how to engage their team members.  There is very little listening going on and it’s often the case that managers engage in sarcasm or are overly critical in trying to move work forward.  As she puts it, “everyone is speedy and every conversation is rushed.” The emotional dimension of who we are as human beings is so often left out of the equation. Play, improvisation and performance are a critical tool in creating the conditions for collaboration and creativity.

Here’s a valuable quote from Lois Holzman’s book Vygotsky at Work and Play:

One of the values of bringing improv to the workplace is its potential to impact on conversation, not only to minimize such unpleasant exchanges but also to give people a method to transform it into something closer to the creative meaning-making activity it is with babies (but in an adult- and workplace-appropropriate manner).  This is exceedingly difficult for adults to do with any consistency.  To get good at it requires a lot of practice, not only in speaking but also in listening, because in ordinary conversations, including those at the workplace, people tend to listen very selectively to what others are saying –  to hear something they agree or disagree with, to assess the “truth value” of what is said, to size up the speaker and try to figure out what she or he “really” means, to plan a comeback, to hear the pause that signals “it’s my turn now” – or all of the above.  “Yes, and” exercises are the main way improvisors practice listening.

Saying “yes and” instead of “no but” is how we build with each other.  It is a recognition of the “we” who work together to accomplish whatever needs to be done.  Listening is a critical tool, as is a recognition that how we say what we say impacts on “the other” – the “creative meaning-making activity”.  Having our focus on “the other” or the “we” is where creativity and collaboration lives. We are meaning-makers. Perhaps this is what Verganti was referring to in saying that Steve Jobs was “managing by meaning”.

Another executive I’ve been working with shared with me that he attended a company-sponsored communication workshop where there was discussion about the fact that people have different personalities and styles of working.  He became aware that he could get better at understanding how he needs to talk to someone and anticipate how they will hear what he’s saying. If a colleague is very analytically-oriented, he cannot come at them with a 30,000 foot view idea — he needs to come to them given what they need and how they see.  We are developing his performance to improve his ability to talk and listen in a new way.

Can the workplace be joyful?

In my work as an Executive Clown I teach executives the value of pointless play and improvisation so that they can utilize the improvisors tool-kit everywhere they find themselves (including the workplace) to live more productive, creative, joyful lives.

Yes and…