June 11, 2015

Laughing Leadership

by Holly Elissa Bruno (guest author)

When people are able to find their sense of play at work, they become truly powerful figures.
—Stuart Brown 

Who makes you laugh? Really laugh. Belly-laugh. Double-over-laughing laugh. Laugh-until-you-cry laugh? 

Could you use a dose of that person right now? I could. Anyone who helps me laugh, especially at myself, gets a pass to my inner circle. 

Laughter is healing and relieving. As I laugh at myself, I take myself less seriously. As I lighten up, people around me shed their uptightness. Leaders who laugh light up the room, uplift their employees, and bring a soothing breeze of perspective. 

Who makes me laugh? Children, of course, and how they see their world: “Look, Ms. Holly, I have TWO yummy boogers.” Dogs make me laugh. My yellow lab, Toby Grapelli, looks me in the eye as if to say: “Play? Ready? Outside? Ball? Now?” How can I refuse? I make me laugh. When I hear myself singing out of key, in my “what the hey” way, I laugh. 

Laughter is a way of getting at the truth. As we ease up, we see more. As we let go of trying to control the outcomes, we open to new approaches. Have you had one of those reflective supervision moments when you realized you are learning more from the teacher than she is from you? I have. Gotta laugh! 

Robin Williams makes me laugh. Rock on with your vacuum, Mrs. Doubtfire! The fact that Robin isn’t with us today, except on screen, reveals another reality: Without humor, we take ourselves dead seriously. We fail to thrive. Our spirits plummet. Without laughter, our work becomes tedium. 

Leaders especially need to laugh. Our team takes the cue from us: Laugh, live, and learn. So, what makes laughter so healing? The simple answer is laughter releases endorphins and is less fattening than chocolate. The deeper answer is: Laughter is a key to our brain’s executive function, the part of us that keeps our eyes on the prize while under pressure. 

Laughter is a tool of the emotionally intelligent leader. Humor helps us call upon our strengths and forgive ourselves for our shortcomings. 

Let’s make this practical: What’s pushing your buttons today? We leaders need to know our triggers. According to Daniel Goleman, the most common workplace triggers include disrespect, not being heard, and being overwhelmed. 

If you haven’t met the perpetually late staff member who chirps: “Just change my start time to an hour later and I’ll get here on time,” you will. When she still arrives late, her behavior is disrespectful of the children, other staff, and you. Knowing what pushes our buttons and what restores our perspective—that’s an invaluable leadership competency. We don’t have to make the same mistake twice. 

Our adult brain is hard wired for survival, to protect ourselves from threat. It’s also hard wired to regain perspective. Laughter is one of many accessible pathways to perspective. 

As leaders, we dance midway between two main functions of our brain–our on-alert brain that scans for danger (the amygdala) and our reflective brain (pre-frontal cortex) that seeks professional solutions. The fact that our pre-frontal cortex is called our executive function is no accident. After all, what distinguishes an executive? Her ability to be fair, informed, see the big picture, foster change for the better, and not take things personally. These are the gifts of our executive function. The challenge is not to sacrifice the gifts to the adrenalin rush of an amygdala hijack (perceived threat that robs us of the ability to “think straight”). 

The amygdala is fear’s ally. It scans our environment for danger, alerts us of threats, and causes adrenalin or cortisol to spurt through our veins. The amygdala invigorates us to fight back or escape the threat through flight or freezing in place. The amygdala is connected to our autonomic system, the knee-jerk reaction part of ourselves that takes over before we can literally “stop to think.” 

When the fear-based amygdala takes over, we are all about survival. Heart pounding, short of breath, defensive, we become reactors not initiators. Simply stated, the amygdala is no laughing matter. 

  • Laughter is the passkey to our executive function. Our executive function allows us to look up, regain perspective, resolve problems, be generous, keep our eyes on the prize, and be open to possibilities. 
  • Fear is the adversary of the executive function. Fear stops children and us from taking risks to grow. Fear addles our ability be optimistic. Fear is a dream-killer. 

We support children’s developing pathways to their executive function every time we help them pick themselves up, make a new friend, try a new activity, stretch beyond their fears. According to Louis Cozolino, the more we respond with our executive function—choosing courage over fear—the more pathways we build to calm the amygdala. Decision-making becomes easier, and what used to get under our skin can no longer provoke us. 

So, as leaders, how do we nurture and stay connected to the power and resilience of our executive function when our amygdala can sucker punch us in a heartbeat? Here are three tools: 

  • Identify behaviors that push your buttons. Common ones are disrespect, entitlement, dishonesty. 
  • Call upon practices that restore your perspective. Pray, take a deep breath, count to ten backwards, recite a favorite quote, picture the difficult person in her underwear (Lucille Ball’s approach), find humor in the moment. 
  • WAIT (Ask “Why Am I Talking?”). Respond only when you have reclaimed your professional self. In most cases, try saying: “Let’s take a break. When we meet next, let’s both come with solutions and not just the problem.” 

Our brain can build healing pathways directly from the pre-frontal cortex to the amygdala. Fear can be replaced by strategizing. Self-doubt can be replaced by reflection. Anger can be transformed to positive action. Even sadness can turn into wisdom. Our executive function can calm down the amygdala like a teacher can comfort child about to melt down. 

By calling on any of these tools, we activate the executive function. We connect to it. Once we light that spark, our brain is ready to enlighten us. Just as the amygdala protects us, the pre-frontal cortex uplifts us. 

When people find their sense of play at work, they become truly powerful figures. Laughter is the easiest way to play. Laughter can alert your pre-frontal cortex that you need help. Laughter can distract the amygdala, giving you time to recover your professionalism. Laughter thaws a frozen team. Laughter heals woundedness. 

My wish for you as a leader: Nurture yourself. Be kind to yourself. Take it easy on yourself. Play. And when it comes to laughter? Don’t leave home without it. 

For a more complete look at lightening up on ourselves, take a look at my brand new book, The Comfort of Little Things: An Educator’s Guide to Second Chances. 

This guest post is written by Holly Elissa Bruno. Holly is an international keynote speaker, ground-breaking radio host, seasoned team builder, and best-selling author who has written ground-breaking books on education leadership, emotional intelligence, and managing legal risks. To “recovering attorney” Holly Elissa, life is too short to anything but enjoy it daily. Learn more about Holly by visiting her website: hollyelissabruno.com.