Joyful Man Excited Fists

The Hard-Soft Leadership Skills Gap

Data. Analytics. Finance. Operational efficiency. Negotiations. Decision making. These are the hard mechanical functions that lead to business and economic success.

Joy. Freedom. Breath. Self-expression. Tenderness. These are the soft fluffy ideals that spiritualists and hippie-types hold dear.

The first has no place in the second, just as the second has no place in the first – or so we are taught.

As a former CEO, CFO, and CTO, and now a regular board member, who attended one of the most rigorously analytical business schools in the world, I can assure you that I was well trained in the first.

As an executive coach and practicing Zen Buddhist who has spent weeks at a time in complete silence surrounded by nuns and monks, I can also assure you that I have been well trained in the second.

What I have learned from these divergent trainings is this: when these ideals are combined, despite their apparent incongruity, they do not explode or convulse as some might expect. Rather, just like the first person to put chocolate on popcorn, they meld together into a beautiful mélange, elevating to a place that neither could ever have achieved on its own.

However, when the concept of “joy” is brought into the workplace it is not uncommon for it to be received with vitriol and disdain. “What?! This is a serious place of business! We have no time for your Kumbaya nonsense!” they seem to say (or, in fact, do say depending on their ability to restrain themselves). And, yes, joy, or what we have come to understand as joy, does seem out of place when we think about our workaday jobs. But, isn’t that exactly the problem?!

The pursuit of joy is universal. We all want it, although in different ways. We can all agree that if we had more joy in our lives, our lives would be better. So, how do we get more of it? More to the point, how do we leverage joy as a mechanism of business efficiency and how do we use joy to navigate change and uncertain times?

Joy vs Happiness

To answer these questions, we have to first understand that focusing on joy does not mean gluttony or turning into Caligula. Rather, it is simply the suggestion that we have, individually and collectively, abandoned the ideals of joy in favor of the ideals of business efficiency and productivity in the workplace. The problem is that we have done so through the lens of the industrial revolution and have not reconsidered it since.  In today’s world, where the vast majority of us provide value through our brains, and not through our brawn, joy must be revisited for us to be able to do our best work.

It used to be that if you got into a terrible fight with your loved one at home and left the house miserable, you could still assemble just as many car parts the next day – it shouldn’t have really mattered much, if at all.  But, in today’s economy where creativity, innovation, interpersonal relations, and communications are pulled on constantly, when you are tanked because of a fight at home, your work product takes a direct, and often very obvious, hit.

The converse is also true.  When we are tapped into our joy, when we are able to bring our whole selves to work, our work product is enhanced. The very measures we are seeking in business, be it productivity, innovation, efficiency, or even going straight to the bottom line of profitability, all benefit dramatically from an orientation towards joy if, for no other reason than, it has been absent from the workplace for so long.

Your joy is what allows you to do so many amazing things, every single day.

To be clear, this is not an article endorsing the idea of desk massages and free lunches, ala Google, in every workplace. Those are nice perks, and they bring pleasure and even happiness, but not joy. For that, we need to understand the differences between joy versus happiness versus pleasure, but that is a much longer conversation. For the sake of time, the quickest version I can give is this: a cupcake is pleasurable, an excellent fine dining experience may bring happiness, but the pride and wellbeing that you feel in having a lasting, tasty, and healthy diet is what drives joy. And, when we look at what is being put forward lately around making employees happy, it does exactly what it says: it makes them happy. It does little, if anything, to drive joy or productivity and, instead, often serves only as golden handcuffs (i.e. who wants to leave a job with free lunches and desk massages?).

Joy At Work

So, the question then is how do we find joy at work? Well the answer is a bit more complicated than buying a foosball table for the rec area. It starts by challenging yourself and your team to consider what their joy even looks like. Sadly, because the concept of joy is so far removed from everything that we collectively experience (i.e. school, work, etc.) it is often a much harder question for people to answer than they may realize. But, even simply opening the conversation to how people experience joy and how it could even possibly be made relevant to their work, workplace, work style, and work product is a great first step.

If you can get to a place of understanding of your joy or that of your team’s the next step would be to explore how to create the context in which that joy can manifest, consistently and repeatedly, for the benefit of the individual, first and foremost, but ultimately, for the benefit of the team. When has it worked in the past?  How can you recreate those conditions? Consider your last team meeting. Likely it didn’t have a whole lot of joy in it, but maybe it did. And, in those moments, when you and your team members are in touch with their joy, their reason for even working at this company in the first place, and allowed to be fully expressed, the dialogue can flow and innovative solutions can be co-created. In that context, even overt conflict can be transformed from being ego-led and in pursuit of being proven right into an opportunity to explore new ideas and find even better answers to pressing issues. This is the power of joy and its relevance to the bottom line.

Now, of course, we at The Big Joy Theory have a few thoughts on what joy at work could possibly look like, and how it can be done best, especially in light of the important differences between joy and happiness. So, if you want to know what we think, well… we’ll be happy to tell you.  But, if not, start by simply asking a few questions and seeing what your own responses are to the concepts of joy in life and joy at work, and then test out your results with others and see what they have to say about it. There’s no wrong way to do it, so long as the focus is on authentic understanding and pursuit of meaningful and productive joy in your life.

It may sound mushy, but it really isn’t. Because, ultimately, it is in pursuit of actionable data, and thereby efficiency, and thereby profitability. It is simply that the approach has changed to adapt to the realities of today and the future of work. And, remember, yes – joy at work is an odd and different concept to bring into the workplace. But, that’s exactly why it is so effective.