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Why Leaders Should Lighten Up

Business Management

Executives worry about the state of the company; employees fret about losing their jobs. What's a leader to do?

Harvard Business | September 1, 2009

2:53 PM Friday August 21, 2009

With the economy in a coma, a pervasive unease has settled on businesses. Executives worry about the state of the company; employees fret about losing their jobs. What's a leader to do?

Lighten up!

Work, especially when the stakes are so high, is serious enough that a manager shouldn't add to the tension by over-managing or going around with a sour puss. It is up to the leader to inspire hope and confidence and one way to do it is by spreading some good cheer. Here are a few things to try.

Relax your mood. There is nothing a manager can do about the tanking economy, but he can do something about how he reacts to it. Grim-faced expressions do not make people want to work harder, but a frequent smile and a friendly nod can do something about the way they feel about their work.

Create laughs. World War I British troops living in trenches amused themselves by staging lighthearted theatrical productions. It was a taste of home and a reminder that as bad as things can get, we all need to laugh, if only to remind ourselves that we're human. So find ways to lighten the mood. Spring for lunch, order cake for the break room, pass out movie tickets or DVD rental coupons, or post cartoons on the billboard. Doing these things reminds people that all work and no play makes for dull living.

Keep your door open. Let people know that you are available to chat. Most often people will come by to discuss work, but there will be times when conversation about life in general is more appropriate. This is not slack time; it's human time. Be available when people just want to talk about things, even about the fate of the company. Be honest and open. You cannot guarantee lifetime employment, but you can promise straight talk.

There is precedence for levity. Abraham Lincoln kept his cabinet and his generals loose by telling stories that would amuse but were also instructive. Case in point. When associates sought to poison the reputation of U.S. Grant by calling him a drunkard, Lincoln famously quipped, "Send whatever Grant is drinking to the rest of my generals." Grant was winning; the other Union generals were not.

Franklin Roosevelt held regular happy hours in the White House, even during the darkest days of the Depression and the Second World War. It was a time to kick back, gossip, and share some laughs.

No one would call Lincoln or Roosevelt inattentive to their situations; both men knew how to find a moment of distance from reality as a means of refreshing themselves and their aides.

Few would argue for excessive levity — that's foolhardiness. A manager needs to keep the team focused on the priorities at hand, but she can do it while being professional about the work and appropriately lighthearted with the people who do it, including herself.

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