Using Lightness in Leadership

Blog 2021-07-13 photo

Lightness, laughter, and levity can be useful in business. “Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity” as Harvard Business Review highlights, citing research by serious institutions like MIT and Wharton.

However, lightness – or lightheartedness – does not always show up when needed. Consider how conversations and outcomes might shift if they did.

I think back to a C-suite team meeting I facilitated (something I do often). There were tense moments, as the subject matter merited the tension (think “solving world hunger” level). When the agenda subject changed to something much less serious, the tenseness hung in the room like a heavy rain cloud. I thought it might be the lingering effects of the prior ‘storm’.

Then, without warning, the CEO was interrupted by an urgent call and stepped out of the room. Suddenly, the team’s mood shifted. Within a few minutes, light-hearted chatter began, as if that heavy rain cloud quickly dissipated.

Nearly 10 minutes later, the CEO reentered the room. The air immediately re-intensified…momentary smiles turned into frowns, and scowls become rampant. It’s amazing how hierarchy can impact a culture.

After the meeting, when the CEO and I debriefed, I asked for observations about the type of energetic space we had experienced. What was it? What was important about keeping the tense energy in the room consistent throughout the meeting? What else was wanted? How could incorporating some lightness have helped re-engage the team? Through our dialogue, it became apparent that the task—not the team—was this CEO’s focus.

It took some time, but eventually this team learned to bring lightness to their leadership. Interestingly, the impetus to change was feedback from their customer that the business seemed to be taking themselves too seriously. “Nothing like a little judicious levity” as the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson said.

Leadership requires paying attention to the energetic field or emotional moods, in addition to the things that must get done. Noticing what is happening at the energetic level allows us to make strategic choices about how we lead. Shifting the mood to be lighter when needed can quickly engage others, and even improve success in the task.

This Week’s Challenge: When you notice a shift toward lightness might be needed, ask people to share a metaphor that comes to mind when they think of the subject or work at hand…encourage them to have fun with this! Really listen with curiosity and without judgment, even have others build on the metaphor – there is information and potential insights to be gleaned from the conversation. Then, ask what may have shifted for them in how they view the subject at hand. Together you can find lessons that surface out of this lighter-hearted approach.

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  1. Doug Brady on July 13, 2021 at 9:19 am

    Nice Jen.
    Makes perfect sense, and I have experienced the reality of lightness in tense situations, and it is almost always welcomed.

  2. Howard Thorsen on July 13, 2021 at 1:04 pm

    There often comes a time, after general agreement on a desired plan of action, when the various players take turns presenting their specific suggestions on how to proceed-resulting in a lessoning of commonality in support of that agreement. Some of the specific ideas may be more appiicable to the periphery of the problem, rather than the root of the problem, and it will be necessary to quench the proliferation of suggestions, without seeming to be in favor of any one. An excellent cue for the moderator to use some humor and return to the subject at hand.
    I suggest something like, “I think we are polishing mouse turds”….and then, after the smiles and chuckles, restate the problem and remind the team of the problem to be addressed.

    (Forgive the crudeness, but you get the idea. )

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