What's Your Story?

Biz Narrative Blog by Ruth Halpern

Observations and anecdotes about business narrative in the corporate world.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Want to Improve Workplace Performance? Play a Little!

I had the privilege recently of leading an ice-breaker session for a board retreat of high-level legal managers. We spent half an hour playing together as a warm-up for their annual retreat. When I say "playing," I mean it in the best sense of the word: Experimenting, taking risks, making mistakes, and laughing our heads off.

We make such a grave mistake, suffer such an immeasurable loss, when we ignore the value of play in the business world.

My techniques for leading people into this world are drawn from improvisational theater, storytelling, and group process. And I know what people think when I suggest that we play catch with an invisible ball--they think it's ridiculous, unprofessional, a complete waste of time.

How can I tell?

Well, of course I can read it on their faces and in their body language. But I also hear the condemnation in my own head, a sinister whisper telling me that having this much fun can't possibly be considered "legitimate" work.

Here's the great news, though. Play is the very most vital, legitimate approach to coming up with new ideas, building healthy, resilient teams, and staying engaged and creative when the going gets tough. Many kinds of research have shown it--one of my favorite books on the subject is The Levity Effect by Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher. Short summary: Studies have shown that laughter pays off. That the most profitable, efficient, and effective business teams are those that laugh together, play together, experiment and explore together.

So why haven't more businesses rushed to embrace this great news? I think there are a few factors:

  • First, in order to laugh, we have to have a certain amount of emotional abundance--the freedom, the time, the expansiveness to let loose and laugh. When times are rough, and people are focused on scarcity and loss, laughter feels like an extravagance that no one can afford. But in fact, we can't afford NOT to laugh. Laughter lightens the mood and replenishes us so we can get back down to business with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
  • Second, I think there's an element of The Emperor's New Clothes in the business world--no one wants to admit that they can't quite see the seriousness and portent in every business procedure and detail, for fear that they'll appear frivolous, incompetent, or addle-pated. So we all put on our stiff suits and our stiff upper lips and act as though everything we do is deadly serious.
  • Third, I think that more traditional businesses, with more traditional, top-down management styles, are reluctant to try anything that doesn't have concrete, measurable results. If it's not rational, linear, and quantifiable, it can't be real.
But we cling to these beliefs to our great detriment.

Playfulness Gets Results

After half an hour of circle games, imagining ourselves in strange worlds, free-associating, and sharing stories about our most passionate non-work interests, the group was energized, galvanized, and ready to begin some of the most creative work of all: developing a vision of the future, and agreeing on a strategic plan to make that vision a reality.

Could they have prepared themselves just as well using a 40-slide PowerPoint and a few flip charts? I doubt it. After all, the meeting took place after lunch. Everyone knows what happens to a human being with a full stomach when the lights dim for a presentation.

If you'd like to learn more about bringing playfulness into your workplace, contact Halpern & Associates at 510-338-0241 or by writing info@rhalpernassociates.com.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Strengthen Your Tolerance Muscles and Support Diversity in Your Workplace

After years of studying the skills of professionalism and self-mastery, I firmly believe that the hardest skill for us humans to develop is tolerance. What better, or more bitter, example, than the recent assassination of physician George Tiller, a brave and compassionate man who was killed for practicing his beliefs? Two people differed on a profound moral issue; for one, this difference was so intolerable that he convinced himself that murder was preferable to mutual acceptance.

We can all imagine what would become of civil society if every time people disagreed, they shot each other. Intolerance inside your organization can also be deeply destructive. When people don’t know how to differ or disagree constructively, their intolerance can destroy creativity, stymie innovation, shatter teams—destroy all the key elements of an enterprise’s success.

But the habit of intolerance is deeply implanted, perhaps even biological. We perceive those who are different from us as threatening, repulsive, wrong-headed—even dangerous. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the little voice in your head next time you find yourself in a crowd. Who are the people who you shy away from, mistrust, condemn? For me, the interior litany of intolerance is instantaneous—and embarrassing. I like to imagine that I’m nonjudgmental, and I’d never deliberately hurt anyone over a disagreement, yet I hear my inner voice criticizing bad driving, bad communication style, bad parenting, and bad fashion crimes. Over and over, it’s those who seem most different from me who I disapprove of most fiercely.

Cultivating tolerance is hard work—in fact, it may go against our natures. Studies show that people are most comfortable living, working, and studying with people most like themselves. That’s how liberal communities like Berkeley spring up—like-minded people like to live together. But “liberal,” it turns out, does not always mean “tolerant.” In fact, Berkeley liberals are just as eager as everyone else to encourage (or coerce) others to be more like them. This is, after all, the town where strangers will criticize what’s in your grocery cart, berate you for the car you drive, and even try to mandate where your coffee comes from.

How can we exercise our tolerance muscles effectively? In my workshops on “Mastering Difficult Conversations” and “Fostering Diversity,” I lead exercises designed to increase your comfort with difference. Find a partner and stage a discussion where someone deliberately opposes one of your most strongly held beliefs—on capital punishment, the right to vote, or the appropriateness of spanking as a child rearing aid. Listen to your inner voice as your partner deliberately supports the opposite position on whatever topic you’ve selected.

Workshop participants report unspoken reactions such as,

“What an idiot!”

“Who in his right mind believes that?”

“Oh, I can’t listen to this!”

“I could never respect someone who believes X.”

Not only do we practice not saying these conversation-stoppers out loud; in these workshops, we listen to those inner voices, and we wait them out. In place of intolerance, we learn to substitute curiosity. Asking questions is a great way to get past the reflex rejection of difference, to actually learn about another person’s point of view.

And I don’t mean fake questions like, “What in the world are you talking about?”

I mean real, open-ended questions, like, “How did you come to that belief?” and “What experiences have led you to that conclusion?”

Try it out sometime. Next time you’re in a conversation with someone you strongly disagree with, instead of explaining to him how wrong he is, or changing the subject because he's “hopeless,” try asking a question. Treat it as an exercise—but see how many things shift for you when you set aside intolerance to learn more about another human being.

Why should we spend time building our tolerance and curiosity?

It could save your life. And it will definitely strengthen all of your relationships, with family, with colleagues, even with those you disagree with most fiercely. Inside our organizations, when we learn to tolerate difference, ask questions out of genuine curiosity, and recognize our common humanity, we add another thread to the web of relationships that supports our success.

Want to strengthen your tolerance muscles and support diversity in your workplace? To schedule a custom-tailored workshop on “Mastering Difficult Conversations” or “Fostering Diversity,” please call 510-338-0241 or contact info@rhalpernassociates.com.