A boardroom sits in despair. Their numbers are wonky; something’s wrong. Though it is only midway through the quarter, their budget says they are about to go over. They’ve spent too much. As the VP and his team pour over the numbers, they begin to realize what the problem is: the VP made a poor investment in a crummy marketing campaign. The room grew quiet. The tension in the room caused an awkward silence to roll over them slowly like a steamroller pressing down asphalt into the hot ground. The VP caught on and sheepishly hid behind a folder of numbers and figures printed in red ink. The VP’s lack of foresight cost them big.
That’s when a brave young exec sitting nearby put down his pencil slowly and carefully, and said to the VP, “Maybe you just weren’t wearing your glasses at the time?”
The room applauded with laughter. They remained over budget, but they accepted it as gracefully as one could.
That story comes from emotional-intelligence-sparty-pants Daniel Goleman in his book, Primal Leadership. In it, he, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee explain how laughter creates great leaders:
Of all emotional signals, smiles are the most contagious… Glee spreads so readily because our brain includes open-loop circuits, designed specifically for detecting smiles and laughter that makes us laugh in response. The result is a positive emotional hijack.
When we laugh, neurons in our brain fire in a way unlike any other emotion. In fact, the neural patterns needed to create a good laugh are so hard to fake that when we laugh with someone, the limbic system of our brain (the area involved with emotions) “locks” in with that person’s limbic system!
So as Goleman puts it, “The sound of laughter signals the group’s emotional temperature, offering one sure sign that people’s hearts as well as their minds are engaged.” Goleman goes even so far as to say that bosses, managers, and leaders who fail to laugh have the draining emotional impact of a demetor from Harry Potter.
So how often do we laugh? Very little, perhaps. We can take a task at work too seriously. We find tax season so trying that we can’t even poke innocent fun at it. We do not grow cynical all in one whack. Cynicism grows like a parasite: it gets worse the more we ignore the little signs. Forgetting to laugh is one of those little signs.
Dr. John Gottman (another super-smarty pants guy) explains that how we laugh matters too. Sarcasm is just as bad as not laughing at all; in fact it can be worse. He even calls sarcasm one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”
Let’s take it easy. This week, I sat down with a friend and talked about an issue I was having with a problematic individual. I caught myself growing agitated, anxious, and yes, even cynical. Perhaps I didn’t show it, but I felt it. And then I spouted off a sarcastic comment about how stupid that person was. My friend heard my sarcastic comment and reeled back. Then they laughed at me. “How dare they laugh at my anxiety,” I thought. Then I realized how I must have sounded, and looked –
So I had to laugh, and thankfully, my friend’s laughter was contagious!
Lighten up. Life will always have frustrating customers, pressing concerns, annoying phone conversations, and too much spam in your inbox. Laugh a little. It might just help you avoid being a dementor yourself.