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Can We Please Stop Taking Ourselves So Seriously?

Updated: Feb 27

I’ve had the privilege of working in and/or leading extraordinary teams. Each of these teams had a central element, the oxygen to the team’s engagement, sense of belonging, and performance. Here are a few. See if you can identify the element.

 

The Team in a Call Center 


Years ago when I worked in a call center, my supervisor and team had a hilarious prop called the Tick Head. The Tick head was a piece of Styrofoam in the shape of a human head. I don’t recall how it started but we dressed it up for Mardi Gras, beads and all. The Tick Head would sit at the desk of whoever made a mistake, asked a silly question, or said something ridiculous. After an eligible event, we would laugh our butts off, including the newly minted winner of the Tick Head.  

We did not take ourselves too seriously. We took risks and learned. Many of us who worked on that team went on to amazing careers in leadership, technology, marketing, design, human resources, call center management, entrepreneurship, and more. 

 

The Team of Analysts 


There was the post-dot-com era team of systems analysts who had little clue what we were doing but were in full learning mode. While analyzing and leading changes to user experience, we experimented and created solutions. We also celebrated silly things. One time, a senior analyst accidentally sent an email meant to be addressed to “All. . . “ as “A--. . .” and we laughed for weeks. We had a running joke that one of the lead analysts needed to be put in a bubble because they had a track record of getting injured during off-site team builders. The stories are countless. 

We knew our work was important but did not think of ourselves too seriously. Maybe it was the benefit of being young, before social media, and unaware of office politics and the importance of personal branding. People moved on from that team and developed amazing careers, going on to senior technology roles, winning awards, and even working across the globe. 

 

The Team of Product Managers 


In the telecom wars, product launches were challenging with long hours of behind-the-scenes crisis management and creative thinking to create elegant customer experiences. This team of product managers was smart and innovative, which came with a large share of failed attempts in rapid iteration. Yet, the team did not get discouraged. We laughed a lot along the way. Long days often ended around a table sharing take-out dinners and cackles over various board games. We laughed so hard that even after a twelve-hour day, we had the energy to spend hours playing Telestrations, Cards Against Humanity, or a made-up game that combined both.  

 

This team produced extraordinary results. Many of its members went on to leadership, senior technology roles, consulting, and entrepreneurship. Years later, we remain connected. A one-word text message from any of them can trigger belly laughs for me. 


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What do these teams have in common? Laughter was the oxygen of these teams. Laughter encourages team engagement, sense of belonging, and performance.  (Charles Feltman and Ila Edgar talk about this in their Trust at Work podcast.)


Laughter releases dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in our brains and bodies that lower stress, increase creativity, and enable bonding. A good belly laugh lowers the fear of risk-taking, enabling ideation and iteration in delivering work. 


A good laugh can help reduce the stress response in the body, helping to mitigate or heal burnout (Nagoski & Nagoski). Chronic unmitigated stress leads to burnout. The effect lingers long after the stress triggers, resulting in layers upon layers of stress sticking around. But a good belly laugh can signal to our brains and bodies that the trigger is gone, and we can now relax. Laughter is healing. 


The feel-good brain and body chemicals set aswirl by a good laugh are also related to bonding. Laughter creates connection, increasing a sense of belonging and psychological safety. It lowers unnecessary defenses and enables collective connection, and getting good work done. Laughter is humanity in the workplace. 


So, can we please stop taking ourselves so seriously? Yes, we have families, responsibilities, work, and things to do. Yes, working and leading in a complicated world can be tough. But we need to laugh and have a good time.  


It is for our good, and the good of our teams. 


Resources:  

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (Emily Nagoski, PhD; Amelia Nagoski, DMA) 

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