Provision #705: Wit Matters

Laser Provision

Wit: “the keen perception and cleverly apt expression of those connections between ideas that awaken amusement and pleasure.” Does that sound like you? Can you make people laugh? Do you? If so, then your leadership position and effectiveness may be higher than most. That’s because great leaders have a great sense of humor. Wit matters. We take the work seriously but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We create a climate where people are not afraid to make mistakes, where they enjoy each other’s company, and where they have fun together. Two organizations that embody these principles are the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington and the St. Paul Saints in Minnesota. Read on to learn how they do it.

LifeTrek Provision

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There’s no doubt that happiness rises to the top of most people’s lists. It’s been that way since time immemorial. Ancient texts in history, literature, and philosophy address the question of how to be happy. Thomas Jefferson enshrined “the pursuit of happiness” as a self-evident, unalienable right in the US Declaration of Independence. More recently, psychologists have started to research the science of happiness.

The science of happiness has become a big business, with titles such as “The How of Happiness,” “The Happiness Hypothesis,” “The Happiness Advantage,” “The Art of Happiness,” “Delivering Happiness,” and “Stumbling on Happiness” leading the list.

The message of all this research and writing is clear: happiness works. The more people feel good the more they do good. Happiness is not just a nice to have, it’s a have to have. Cracking the whip to keep miserable people working not only makes them more miserable, it also makes them less productive. In every area of human endeavor, happiness matters.

I made that point several months ago after attending the Harvard Coaching Conference. Now I want to focus on the role of leaders in creating happiness at work. Although it’s certainly true that everyone has some degree of responsibility for organizational culture and climate, it’s also true that leaders have special responsibility. Our words and actions are often the critical ingredient in whether or not people are happy.

Happiness has less to do with outcomes and challenges and more to do with processes and conversations. Even when people are tackling really big problems, we can still have fun. It’s up to leaders to make sure that happens. In a recent Dilbert cartoon, the pointy-haired boss didn’t quite strike the right balance:

Sound familiar? If so, then you are probably not happy at work. When leaders put people in a double bind, when we see ourselves as controlling behavior through rewards and punishments, then people will come to think of us more as adversaries than advocates.

Until and unless leaders find ways to use humor and play in what we say and do at work, laughing at and leveraging the inevitable mistakes, people will not take risks, teams will not be creative, and goals will not gain traction. Humor and play are staples of innovative and productive organizational cultures.

Two organizations that understand this fully are the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington and the St. Paul Saints, a minor-league baseball team in St. Paul, Minnesota. The leaders, employees, and customers of both organizations have been featured worldwide in the media and in training videos for their unique, putting-happiness-to-work philosophies and practices. All organizations, from large corporations to local schools to little league teams, have a lot to learn from their wisdom.

The Pike Place Fish Market, founded in 1930, was near bankruptcy in 1986 when the owner and his staff started to work with business coach Jim Bergquist. The decision to become “world famous” for throwing fish and playing games with customers was the result. It worked. Deciding to have fun at work proved to be not only good for business, it also proved to be contagious. The 1998 documentary featuring their “FISH! Philosophy” has been used by firms around the world.

You can watch the trailer on their website, but the FISH! Philosophy boils down to four simple points:

  1. Play (Fun, silly energy attracts customers.)
  2. Make Their Day (Treat everyone special.)
  3. Be There (Look directly at people and smile.)
  4. Choose Your Attitude (Be positive. Don’t bring a downer attitude to work.)

The St. Paul Saints has been the name of a professional baseball team in Saint Paul, Minnesota since at least 1884. The team has gone out of business many times, only to rise again with new leadership and backing from the community. The current team, dating back to 1993, may well be the most successful of them all. Why? Because of their marketing philosophy: “Fun Is Good.”

Since adopting that mantra, the St. Paul Saints have also been featured routinely in the media and in training videos. With unique and zany promotions before, during, and after games, the Saints have sold out just about every game for the past 18 years. They have become so popular and such a driving force in St. Paul that they are now working with the state and the city to build a new, $35 million stadium.

They, too, have discovered how happiness works. It’s not just that they are in the entertainment industry. It’s how they treat each other and their customers. You can watch the full video online, but the Fun Is Good philosophy also boils down to four simple points:

  1. Discover Your Passion (Work for a reason beyond money.)
  2. Bring a Positive Attitude (Choose to show up in a good mood.)
  3. Find Laughter (Lighten up. Don’t take ourselves too seriously.)
  4. Show People You Care (Be nice. Take a personal interest in people and treat them right.)

There are obviously a lot of similarities between the two philosophies. They boil down to making work fun, and that often starts with the wit and wisdom of leaders. The words we choose to live by are the words that set the pace for our leadership and organizations. Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • No pain, no gain.
  • Tough love.
  • We’re not running a charity, we’re running a business.
  • Failure is not an option.

Sayings like those can get leaders in trouble. They are certainly a far cry from “FISH!” or “Fun Is Good” philosophies. If we find ourselves leading people with a chip on our shoulders, if our wit and wisdom make life harder rather than easier, if we joke around at people’s expense • tearing them down rather than building them up • then perhaps it’s time to look again at our leadership.

Wit matters. What we say matters. The more we can lighten the mood and make work fun, the more we can fuel happiness and engagement among our people, the more success we will experience as leaders and the more progress we will make toward our goals. The tougher the challenge the more important it is to not take ourselves too seriously. Mistakes will be made but that doesn’t mean we have to become unbearable until they get corrected.

On the contrary, we can be the ones to laugh and learn from what mistakes have to teach us. Every strategy starts out as an experiment. No one knows for sure what will and will not work; and just because something works today doesn’t mean it will work forever. That’s how great leaders turn tough times into fun times. We joke about mistakes and lessons learned without any sense of shame or blame. We treat problems as puzzles so people will enjoy playing with them until we find the pieces that work.

Great leaders don’t turn puzzles into battles. Even when it takes a really long time to arrange all the pieces, and even when it appears hopeless, we can always laugh, take breaks, and return to the drawing board until we get it done. That’s the tone consistently set by great leaders. We say things and make connections that awaken amusement and pleasure on the road to success.

Coaching Inquiries: What kind of leader are you? What is the wit and wisdom that comes out of your mouth? What are some of your favorite sayings? What do those sayings reveal about your approach to life? How could you become a more fun person to work with? What would lighten the mood? How could you act on that impulse, right now?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

This week’s Provision, Words Matter, was excellent. I especially liked the quote from Madame Bovary. Words do indeed matter and we see examples of what too little attention to what we say does to cause controversy where none really need exist. Well done!

I read your words this morning and had quite a number of thoughts about what you said and about what Marshall says about the tragic expression of unmet needs and about my own principals and values which I hold dear and precious and that reshape me everyday, guided by the aliveness. Duality is what my mind came to rest in and the notion and embodiment of what Buddhists refer to as the “hungry ghost.” This is relatively new ideology to me but it seems relevant to what happened in Tucson. Thanks for setting my thinking in motion. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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