Laughter in Leadership: Time to Get Serious About It

When’s the last time you had a good laugh at work?

If you can’t remember, then you’re seriously not alone.

We’re in in the midst of a laughter drought, according to MBA candidate Eric Tsytsylin.

Data backs that up:

While babies laugh about 400 times each day,

adults over 35 years of age laugh only about 15 times each day.

At the workplace, there’s a lot less laughter.

Gallup research notes people laugh a great deal less during the week than weekends.

We Need Laughter for a Happy Life

Laughter is indeed serious business for living a happy life. Adding in lightness, fun and humor to our work and life adds connection and a new perspective.

Research from Northwestern University discovered laughing boosts your mood and can promote innovation and beneficial brainstorming, help employees work better and increase overall satisfaction on the job.

So, let’s start laughing at the workplace!

“If you can learn the humor of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.”

-Peter McGraw (author of The Humor Code and a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder) and Joel Warner (a journalist) citing anthropologist Edward Hall

Laughter: The Best Medicine

Seems as we grow up, we take life a lot too seriously. But why? A good, deep, belly laugh, when your lips nearly crack from smiling and your eyes tear up, is like a heaping spoonful of wonderfully natural medicine.

Loma Linda University Associate Professor Dr. Lee Berk has researched laughing for nearly 30 years. A Time article by Markham Heid highlights what Berk has discovered about laughter.

It:

  • triggers production of feel-good chemicals in our bodies
  • inhibits the release of stress hormones
  • works to lower inflammation
  • improves blood flow

In an HBR article, Leading With Humor, Alison Beard writes that laughter in the workplace:

  • relieves boredom and stress
  • encourages creativity and working together

Here’s something of interest: laughter also increased employee productivity by 10% after watching a comedy clip versus their counterparts who did not.

The Magic of Humor Has Wide-Reaching Benefits

In The New York Times, Senior Editor Corinne Purtill cited a striking example of just how much infusing laughter into a presentation can improve the audience’s attention – and retention.

Behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker wanted to see how adding humor to an otherwise ho-hum lecture would affect the audience.

It proved to be a memorable presentation.

She asked media and strategy consultant Naomi Bagdonas to give a guest lecture. The audience was unaware that in addition to her consulting credentials and working on her MBA, Bagdonas did evening gigs performing improv at comedy clubs.

While her lecture explained the use of stories in conjunction with data, neurochemistry, and factor analysis – bland, humdrum stuff by most people’s standards – Bagdonas’ comic delivery had students laughing to tears – and remarkably recalling her points more accurately than most other guest speakers.

As a result, Aaker and Bagdonas instruct a course at Stanford, “Humor: Serious Business.” The two teach that it’s not about joke telling – it’s about cultivating joy. And while one must be careful in dispensing humor so as not to be offensive to others, an authentic leader who expresses empathy and emphasizes inclusion can also add humor to inspire trust in the workplace.

In her HBR article, Beard noted a few highlights of infusing humor:

  • Be honest and authentic in your humor
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself – it indicates things are alright
  • Laughter puts people at ease, so go ahead and poke fun about the things everyone is stressed over

And in today’s tumultuous world, a little humor can go a long way.

I always give 100% at Work: 10% Monday, 23% Tuesday, 40% Wednesday, 22% Thursday, and 5% Friday.​

-Anonymous

Let Go. Laugh a Little. And Then Some More 🙂

Writing in Forbes, Jacquelyn Smith offers up why humor can be the key to success at the workplace:

  • It puts people at ease
  • It can reduce stress
  • Helps spur creative thinking
  • Aids in building trust
  • Can boost morale and lessen employee turnover

She notes, however, that not all workplaces encourage humor. International business speaker Michael Kerr writes that it depends on the atmosphere of the office. Less structured environments, where employees can be themselves, tend to express their humor more openly.

Some employees, Kerr explains, purposely tone down their humor, to be taken more seriously. “Yet, this can backfire as people who take themselves overly seriously are often, ironically, taken less seriously by the people around them,” states Kerr.

Humor Has the Power to Add Lightness to Any Workplace

Recently the national media had fun with the “cat” attorney Rod Ponton, who signed into Zoom for a court hearing. Because of a Zoom filter, however, the judge wasn’t looking at Ponton, but instead, a talking white kitten.

Ponton attempted to remove the cat photo. So did his assistant. “I don’t know how to remove it,” he admits in the video. “I’ve got my assistant here and she’s trying to remove it but uh…I’m prepared to go forward with it. I’m here live. I’m not a cat.”

About 20 seconds later, the kitten transformed into Ponton, who admits he – and many others – had a good laugh about it.

A little humor adds some lightness to our lives, when we’re so pandemic weary, longing for our old routines, and uncertain of what the future holds.

And for authentic leaders, incorporating humor into the workplace is like putting the cherry on the chocolate ice cream sundae.

“Sometimes I spend the whole meeting wondering how they got the big meeting table through the door.” – Greeting Card Poet

Hope that got you laughing!

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Letting Go

Surrender: The Secret to a Great Leader

Great leadership has nothing to do with making everyone do what you say. It’s not about controlling anyone or anything.

Great leadership is about letting go – surrendering to what is.

“To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'”— Lao-Tzu

Misconceptions About Great Leaders

In some cultures, people think leadership is about commanding, issuing orders, and making everything fall into place.

Or else.

That may have been effective in the 1950’s or in the modern-day military, but great leaders in organizations today are those who know that letting go fosters innovation, collaboration, and a sense of belonging, being a valued member of a team.

letting go

It remains prevalent today where control is viewed as strength while surrender is viewed as weakness. Yet as Mike Myatt points out in Forbes, “Society has labeled surrender as a sign of leadership weakness, when in fact, it can be among the greatest of leadership strengths.”

Myatt makes it clear: Surrendering isn’t about giving up.

It’s about letting go – getting out of the way – and by doing so, allowing others to be influenced by your example.


As a result, the walk-on-eggshells atmosphere of a controlling leader, where employees feel squashed by micromanagement and worn from being treated as misbehaved children is replaced by a positive and collaborative environment. Employees feel valued, their confidence buoyed – and innovation, initiative, and talents shine.

Avoid Scripting the Duties of Your Employees

Some leaders – who, in fact, are mere managers in this case – choose to lead by making their employees follow prescribed rules and regulations…much like an instruction sheet for putting together a gas grill, for example.

For most people trying to follow well intended step-by-step directions, the project falls short: instead of a sense of satisfaction from a completed job, frustration, annoyance, and irritation is the result.

Many employees feel that way about their jobs in the workplace.

Leaders may have good intentions by implementing flow charts, rules and directives and censoring any questions to their orders.
Yet all that results in is poor performance, high employee turnover and poor customer service.

A shining testament to letting go as a leader can be found in Jim Bush, who transformed American Express’ call centers. In Harvard Business Review, Rob Markey writes of Bush’s novel approach.  His was unique, as American Express already had a high level of service for its call centers – he wasn’t hired to ‘fix’ anything.

But Bush could see even better. Like many companies, American Express had specific guidelines for call center employees, always with a watchful eye on reducing call time but increasing customer satisfaction. Yet turnover was high and employee morale low.

Bush decided that American Express needed to build relationships with their call customers.  Rather than feel like they were talking to a computer, Bush wanted callers to feel as if they were talking to a human being – one that cared.

Impactful Leaders Lead by Letting Go

Bush led – by letting go. How?

He:

  • Tossed the call center scripted guidelines.
  • Stopped limiting the time – allowing customers to speak – as human beings talking to real human beings.
  • Modified the hiring practices, choosing employees with hospitality and retail experience.
  • Renamed the job titles: switching from customer service reps to customer care professionals.
  • Allowed reps to gauge their own time for each call.

The results? Customers were more approving, employee turnover dropped, and AmEx continues to win the J.D. Power customer service award in credit cards.

Great Leaders Don’t Need to Seek the Spotlight. They Naturally Shine

Letting GoSociety, as Mike Myatt points out in Forbes, is captivated by celebrities.

As a result, “the practice of servant leadership is antithetical to our human nature and our current culture.”

Personal success, he writes, is linked with how much we help others – rather than what we do for ourselves.

What’s holding you back from becoming a great leader, asks Myatt? 

YOU.

Effective leadership isn’t about control. It’s not about power.

“Lead from the back and let others believe they are in front”. – Nelson Mandela

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Self-Compassion is What Makes Good Leaders the Greatest

Smart people tend to want to prove themselves by accomplishing a lot within a short period of time.

In holding our feet to the fire, we also tend to be extremely hard on ourselves. For many, there seems to be a deeply rooted belief that in order to be a highly successful leader, continual stress comes with the territory.

We tell ourselves this is how we “get good.” And, admittedly, it may have worked for a time. But it becomes a cycle of never enough and of never-ending stress.

And it’s not a long-term strategy. How could it be? Stress, fatigue, burn-out and plain ole discouragement from our stinkin’ thinkin’ would take its toll on anyone – at best, slowing us down and, at worst, setting the stage for longer-term unproductive struggles in our work and personal relationships.

If left unchecked, it negatively affects performance in the workplace. And it doesn’t have to be like this.

Self-Compassion is the Foundation of Leadership

“Try to feel compassion for how difficult it is to be an imperfect human being in this extremely competitive society of ours…
We’re told that no matter how hard we try, our best just isn’t good enough.”

-Kristin Neff

Our workplaces have become full of discontentment. According to Gregory Stebbins and co-author Marcos Cajina, writing in the Huffington Post, a 2013 Gallup poll revealed shocking results:

-87% of capable employees reported being disengaged

We need to let go of the old ways of leadership. And that means, say the authors, opening the door to self-compassion.

Compassion Makes Leaders More Resilient

Many professionals are experiencing unprecedented record stress levels, brought on not only by the global pandemic and its far-reaching effects, but the political unrest in the world as well.

We’re a world hungry for compassion.

Writing in Forbes, Rebecca Zucker relates her conversation with Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and also The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, noting how vital compassion is during these tumultuous times. While offering it to others, we must also offer it to ourselves. Zucker notes:

“…self-compassion is a muscle we can build that makes us more resilient over time and allows us to be more optimistic.”

According to Neff, self-compassion consists of three components:

  1. Become mindful and aware of your suffering and acknowledge it.
  2. Be kind to yourself, showing the same care and concern you would give to a child who is suffering.
  3. Realize and remind yourself that you are part of this large community that is humanity. Oftentimes, we feel as if we are suffering all alone when, in fact, we are one among many.

Neff states that when we are aware of our suffering, it is then that we should do something kind for ourselves, like taking a day off, indulging in a nap, or even a long walk. And it’s also good to have support from others.

There is often a cultural roadblock to self-compassion, that somehow being soft with ourselves means we won’t get ahead or be successful. But, it’s actually the opposite that is most often true:

Self-encouragement is shown to be a more effective motivator than self-criticism.

There are gender barriers as well to self-compassion. Women, socialized to care for others, often believe self-compassion is a selfish act, while men can view it as a display of weakness.

Self-Esteem or Self-Compassion?

There is a difference. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Serena Chen notes self-esteem generally involves judging one’s self in comparison to others. Self-compassion has no judgement involved:  it creates a sense of wellbeing.

Kristin Neff digs deeper. Self-esteem is how we judge ourselves positively, how much we value ourselves in comparison with those around us. Self-compassion, meanwhile, is how we relate to ourselves. it shows the interconnection with other humans, instead of a separateness.

As a result, Neff states, with self-compassion:

  • We don’t have to feel better than other people to feel good about ourselves.
  • We don’t need others to feel good about ourselves.

Self-compassion shares many of the same benefits as self-esteem, and though it may not seem so at first, helps us to ultimately focus on a “we” rather than a “me” mentality – as we begin to sense our interconnectedness with all others.

Self-Compassion: A Solid Foundation for Authentic Leaders

self-compassionCarol Dweck, psychology professor at Stanford University, states self-compassion supports what she calls a ‘growth mindset.”

Those with a growth mindset:

-view personal abilities and traits as changeable, see potential for growth and are more likely to maintain positive and optimistic outlooks.

Those with a fixed mindset:

see personal abilities, including their own, as set in stone, believing people will be the same five years from now.

In her research, those who were encouraged to have compassion for themselves in situations where they felt they did wrong reported being more motivated to make amends and not repeat the same error.

Most importantly for leaders, a self-compassion mindset spreads to others. Having compassion for oneself in turn encourages compassion for others. All the characteristics of compassion, like non-judgement and genuine caring, are absorbed by others.

Chen cites research by Jia Wei Zhang that shows that leaders who take on a growth mindset – who believe that change IS possible – tend to notice changes in employees’ performances and intervene to give feedback for improvement.

Employees, in turn, can discern this mindset in their leader, and as a result, are more likely to adopt growth mindsets, too. Truly, this is leading by setting a good example.

Cultivating Self-Compassion is a Skill

Like anything, developing self-compassion it is a skill that needs practice. Chen identifies a psychologist’s checklist for self-compassion: Ask:

Am I:

  1. being kind to myself?
  2. aware that everyone has shortcomings and makes mistakes?
  3. keeping uncomfortable feelings in their proper light?

An easier method, Chen also advises, could be: write yourself a letter in the third person – write to yourself as if you were writing to a dear friend in need of compassion. What would you say to him/her?  What tone would you use?  How would you like this dear friend to see him/herself?

“A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them.” M.D. Arnold

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To Become a More Intentional Leader, Start Journaling

The achievements of John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Ernest Hemingway, and Marie Curie are well-known to many of us.

As diverse as their careers may be, they shared a common practice: journaling.

While writing down their thoughts, visions, and desires, they chronicled their journey through life. Today, we can read through their written history and glean details into their personal selves.

Perhaps they knew long before we did the value of journaling.  On the surface level, it can be a peaceful reprieve from our frantic 24-7 workdays. And, it is also so much more.

“Journaling is paying attention to the inside for the purpose of living well from the inside out.”

-Lee Wise

Journaling: A Healing Ointment for a Hurting World

Although many of us have good intentions to improve ourselves, we oftentimes find excuses that keep us from our self-improvement goals.

Whether it’s taking time to affirm each day, practicing self-care, or even journaling to self-reflect, we make the usual excuses:

  • We’re too busy.
  • Interruptions get in the way.
  • It’s a waste of our time.

We’re only kidding ourselves.

Henna Inam confesses in Transformational Leadership that she too, found many other things she’d rather do than journal – until she read that many successful people, including US Presidents, kept a daily journal.

She admits that got her attention. Inam recommends journaling to all her executive coaching clients. By putting thoughts down on paper, Inam says journaling relieves the mind of mental burdens that left unchecked, can spiral into negative thoughts.

She notes its transformative benefits: we get greater insights into ourselves and others – and it can improve our health.

Inam offers up 10 suggestions for journaling. Here are some key ones:

  1. Purchase an attractive journal. It becomes a central place for our thoughts. No scrap papers.
  2. If you get stuck, write down what you’re grateful for and why.
  3. List out goals and keep track of them.
  4. During difficult days, write down insights into any emotion that comes up.

Deepok Chopra and Kabir Sehgal writing in Make It, noted four benefits journaling can have in our lives:

  1. Leads us to ‘see’ our thoughts and feelings to make better sense of them
  2. Assists in recovering from stressful events
  3. Enhances our problem-solving skills
  4. Helps us to learn deeper lessons more quickly so we can move on to brighter situations.

Experts say that taking just 15 minutes each day, three to five times a week, can have a significant impact on our physical and mental well-being.

Journaling is a gift to ourselves, part of an overall self-care routine.

We can discover more about how we’re really feeling, and what we want to accomplish – both of which are key first steps to greater self-awareness, the first step in leadership. Self-discovery is a powerful tool, and journaling assists us in our efforts as we review daily encounters:

  • Are we reacting – or responding – to triggers?
  • How do we feel about ourselves when faced with stressful conditions?
  • Next year at this time, where do we see ourselves?

How Journaling Can Help Enhance Our Leadership Capability

Great leaders take time to reflect, writes Nancy Adler in Harvard Business Review.

And what better way to gain insight into one’s self and others than to journal, even for just a few minutes each day?

It’s a quiet time to hear what we have to say to ourselves. Adler suggests asking:

  • How am I feeling about my own leadership?
  • How do I feel right now?
  • What contributed to my happiness this week?

Go beyond your work environment, Adler suggests. Look at a painting and ask, what do I see? If you connect what you see in the painting to your current situation, what new vantage points are revealed to you.

As Adler summed up:

Using a journal regularly will give you the courage to see the world differently, to understand the world differently and to lead in new and needed ways.

In pandemic – and post-pandemic times – our world is craving innovative, inspired leadership.

The New Year is a perfect time to begin journaling.

We can discover ourselves, our inner gifts, and realize out-of-the-box solutions we might ordinarily have overlooked.

“Journal writing, when it becomes a ritual for transformation, is not only life-changing

but life-expanding.” – Jen Williamson

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For Successful Leadership, Leverage the Mighty Power of Affirmations

The simple things in life are the ones we often glance over – without any thought.

And yet, that is where the biggest part of our power lies: in our thoughts.

How many times have we experienced it to be true that the outside world is a reflection of what’s going on in the inside”?

In other words, whatever is going on in our lives is a mirror to how we may be feeling or what we may be thinking: if we are thinking positively and feeling expansively, then we are setting the stage for higher-level circumstances in our lives and work. If we are not, well, then the opposite has a larger chance of occurring.

If we tell ourselves we are incapable of something, we are likely to sabotage ourselves and not accomplish that thing. If we tell ourselves we are not good enough, we will likely find ourselves in situations in which we show ourselves that we are not.

In other words, whatever we focus on in the secret place of our minds, the universe dutifully brings to us.

Indeed, in leadership and in life, many people have discovered a simple, yet profound truth:

What we say verbally (and internally, via self-talk) eventually materializes into our conscious experience.

We can affect what we want to be or do or have by consciously choosing what we tell ourselves.

And, yes, while that might very well sound woo-woo, there is actually quite a bit of scientific research backing it up.

Leverage the Power of Affirmations to Achieve Success

Numerous studies have noted the positive effects that affirmations provide.

Research at the Annenberg School for Communication, collaborating with University of Michigan and UCLA, discovered what happens in our brains while we practice self-affirmations.

Affirmations, like prayer, actually change the brain on a cellular level—in other words, what you think about matters—a lot. “Thoughts have a direct connection to your health,” says Dr. Joseph Dispenza, author of Physics, the Brain and Your Reality:

“Thoughts make a chemical. If you have happy thoughts, then you’re producing chemicals that make you feel happy. Negative, angry thoughts and fearful thoughts also produce chemicals to make you feel how you’re thinking.”

Neurons connect in your brain by attaching to thoughts and memories. Thoughts then become organized into a pattern. For example: The feeling of love is stored in a pattern. Each person builds his/her concept of love from many different ideas and experiences, explains Dispenza.

What Exactly Are Affirmations, Anyway?

 “Affirmations are statements you make to yourself — declarations of what you wish to be”.

– Sharon Janis

 “Every thought you think and every word you speak is an affirmation. All of our self-talk, our internal dialogue, is a stream of affirmations. You’re using affirmations every moment whether you know it or not. You’re affirming and creating your life experiences with every word and thought.”

– Louise Hay

As Bryan Goodwin wrote in Affirmations for Better Leadership, saying affirmations with confidence awakens the subconscious mind, thereby causing it to pay more attention to our affirmation – and less attention to that which we are critical of ourselves for.

While affirmations should be your own words, Rick Clonlow writing in LinkedIn shares some good examples to inspire us:

-I am achieving dramatic success in my work.

-I am a good listener.

-I am working smarter, not harder.

True Leaders Speak Authentic Affirmations

When acknowledging achievements done by their team, authentic leaders offer congratulatory praise that is genuine – and personally directed.

Enzo M. Battista-Dowds PhD. RD noted in The Ascent that when we are not genuine, our affirmations aren’t, either.  After all, our listeners can easily tell – by our tone of voice or by our energy – when we are not being genuine with our words.

For example, a leader may tell an employee that they are brilliant, excellent and exceptional, but as Battista-Dowds states, if they are not specific to the person, there is no depth to these words. They are merely empty words that a person with little self-esteem will most likely disregard. To change this disbelief, Battista-Dowds suggests a double affirmation.

Start with a value affirmation and end with a quality affirmation that is specific to the person. This creates compelling affirmations. Examples from Battista-Dowds:

“Your teamwork is fantastic. You’re collaborative.

Your service is stellar. You’re professional.”

Context is everything, says Batista-Dowds, and “doubling-up” is even more powerful. An employee hears their service is stellar and then acknowledges their work is stellar because they are a professional.

Our world yearns for positivity and compassion. An authentic leader inspires others with meaningful and genuine words of praise, specifically tailored for each team member. Employees are uplifted and motivated – a win-win atmosphere in any organization.

We Can Affirm Our Way to Success With Positive Statements

Affirmations needn’t be complex – they are simply positive statements we make that focus on whatever it is that we desire to accomplish.

To be most effective, they are to be repeated frequently and with a strong conviction to create a fundamental shift in our subconscious so that our inner system truly believes in what we are telling it.

Just as important as affirming regularly is surrounding ourselves with people who support us with empowering thoughts. Amy Morin in Psychology Today says the company we keep says a lot about us: we begin to act like the people we surround ourselves with. This is why it is important to associate with those who raise us up.

Affirmations should be words of our own choosing. We can speak them, too, as if we are talking to a friend. Speak in the present tense.

To normalize the affirmation in your thinking, repeat it 10 times for a few minutes, twice daily.

Be consistent. Remember, we often are uprooting decades of thought patterns that create limiting effects for us. Stay grounded in what you want to create for yourself.

And, as the old saying goes, “Act as if.” Doing so helps influence our subconscious mind more effectively so that it believes in the truth of our affirmative statement.

Yes, it really is true: we do have the power to change ourselves. It is within each of us. As we tell ourselves powerful, positive thoughts, we can be witness as our outer world transforms.

“Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

—Napoleon Hill

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