Ever since I can remember, I loved writing. I started writing stories when I was little and kept writing as a teenager. For my 16th birthday, I got a brand-new white Olympia typewriter. I still remember my pride. The typewriter font was square and modern; it made me feel like a published author.
What happened to my writing joy? First, writing became an obligation. Writing is no longer my choice or outlet, but something I have to do. Second, writing became formulaic. Introduction. Literature Review. Methods. Results. Discussion. Implications. Conclusion. There is a formula, and I must follow it if I have any hopes of publication.
After years of strict rules and formulae, I started hating writing. Eventually, I also started doubting my abilities, crushed by rejections and boredom.
Recently, my daughter encouraged me to just start writing. She has a system; writing for 20 minutes at a time, non-stop. She lets her creativity guide her fingers. With my daughter's encouragement, I rediscovered my lost joy. And as I find, once again, the excitement of the written word, I wonder what leadership lessons I can take from this experience. My question: How do leaders crush joy?
Crush their confidence. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the brilliant author of Flow, suggests that people need an optimum balance of challenges and resources to feel in a "state of flow." That "optimum balance" lies in the magical space between boredom and stress. We need enough challenge to keep growing and enough resources to feel our case is not hopeless. The good news: Flow work is joyful. Artists, performers, and people who feel passionate about their work, often report flow experiences.
Leaders: If you crush someone's confidence in their abilities, you reduce their perceived resources. The challenges, in comparison, may feel unsurmountable. People will "go through the motions" to complete their work. The results, while adequate, are unlikely to be either innovative or exciting.
Beef up the rules. Think of a child playing. There is joy in experimenting, trying, moving things around. Now think of yourself learning how to play a board game or experimenting with a new app. Do you read every single instruction? How fast do you just start tinkering and figuring out new rules as you go along?
Leaders: Joy and freedom go hand in hand. People crave independence, the ability to fly without an exact destination. Give me too many rules, and you will crop my wings. The wonder of discovery will abandon me.
Emphasize control. The word management originates from "controlling a horse"(source: https://www.etymonline.com). Ouch. I'm not a horse; I'm a free spirit who needs air to breathe and sky to spread my wings. The more you try to control me, the less I want to fly.
Leaders: Relinquishing control is scary. But if you want to bring joy back to the workplace, you must trust your people to do what they need to do. The more you try to "handle people," the more you treat them like mindless horses. Leaders do not take horses to a set destination. They share a sense of purpose with their teams and run along with them.
Silence my voice. As an academic writer, I must support everything I say with expert quotes and research. In plain English, nothing I say matters until I find someone else - preferably a highly published author - who said it too.
I'm not suggesting we should not support our writing with examples and research data. Instead, I argue that there is room, even in academic writing, to share our own experiences. To use ourselves as laboratories.
Leaders: The more you silence someone, the less engaged they are. People need to speak, to express themselves, to feel heard.
Reduce (or eliminate) the rewards. My love of writing was intrinsic, requiring neither pay nor extra incentives. Most authors, however, hope that someone will read their work. After all, we write to share our thoughts and ideas and to connect to others. Academic publishing, however, is highly competitive. Upper-level journals accept 15% of the submissions. The real prizes - the top journals one often needs for tenure and promotion - take 5 to 10% of the proposed articles. Thus, much of what we write goes somewhere to die. Over time, we learn "what works" - but proposals "that work" may no longer feel joyful.
Leaders: Rewards should not feel like buying a lottery ticket. They must be obtainable. Keep in mind that when I use the word "reward," I do not mean a gift, a prize, or a pay increase. A reward may simply be the ability to be proud of what one does, the opportunity to share one's work with one's peers.
In Summary: To promote a joyful work environment, encourage confidence, reduce control, let go of unessential rules, and ensure that rewards are possible.
Of course, remember, as you consider those tips, that people have unique needs. What feels like "too much control" or "too many rules" to some may be a "reasonable structure" to others. Also, rewards are individual. Ask your employees what gives them joy.
A last thought. I'm not ignoring reality. Yes, we must follow some rules, and yes, managers must have a certain amount of control. The key is to balance the unavoidable with the ideal. Don't let unnecessary rules crush the magic of your employees' creative spirit.
Dr. Cris Wildermuth
Dr. Cris Wildermuth is Linked:HR's Community Leader and an Associate Professor at Drake University, where she directs the Master of Science in Leadership Development. You may find out more about Dr. Wildermuth's leadership development, ethics, and intercultural development consulting practice at THIS PAGE.