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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

SEP 2008, No. I, Sec. II

Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!

Shrink Rap II:

The Intersection of Multitasking and IQ Performance and Humor and Creative Problem-Solving:  Curious Minds Want to Know

In a recent, thoroughly researched and conceptually articulate article on "Burnout" for The Write Stuff, (a magazine for medical writers in Europe), Lynne Goutas, Managing Partner, Lehner Executive Partners, cited a study that definitely got my attention.  (Ms. Goutas interviewed and quoted me for the article.  Email stressdoc@aol.com for the PDF version.)  The study examined the effects of multitasking on a subject's performance while taking an IQ-test.  The subjects were divided into three test-taking categoies:
a) no distractions
b) answering emails and a cell phone
c) "stoned" while test-taking.  (Now how the subjects achieved their stoned state was not spelled out; nor the intensity of altered consciousness.  More on this shortly.)

So how did the groups perform?  Not surprisingly, the group having no distractions scored highest.  But the next best performing group, you guessed it, was the "stoners."
Of course, curious minds want to know what if anything might occur if those multitaskers were also stoned.

Actually, this questrion leads to a second research study performed years ago, by a University of Maryland psychology professor, Dr. Alice Isen.  This study explored any linkage between humor and laughter and creative problem-solving.  The results:  people who had just watched a short comedy video of television bloopers were better able to find a creative solution to a puzzling problem than subjects who had exercised, or people who had watched a video about math (zzzzz!).

Humor and laughter seems to stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain, which tends to be more visual and holistic (as opposed to being linear and analytical) in it's ability to recall and process data.  This integrative thinking often produces unusual combinations and unexpected relationships.

So let's return to the first study.  Being an old sixties guy (with a heart that still sings and a mind that dances on occasion), I can't but think (fantasize) that the inducement of choice for our stoned subjects was marijuana.  And as I recall those hazy days, second only to getting the munchies was being caught up in a group laughing jag.

And being of holistic temperament, I can't help but hypothetically combine the two studies.  Gee, what might be the interaction effect if some of Dr. Isen's students had also been stoned?  Who knows, the blooper group might have been off the creativity charts.

Of course, I'm not saying one must be in a drug-induced state to be highly creative.  Still I wonder if those multitaskers had taken some time to smell the roses and the weed, (and, just maybe, could slow down enough to laugh at the absurdity of frenetic multitasking) would their performance have improved?

Main Essay:

Can a Workplace Be Both Fun and Focused?

Q.  We want to create an environment in which each member of the workforce can have fun while at the same time improving productivity and performance. Are we living in a dream world? Or is it possible to actually create and sustain such a workplace and, if so, how?

A.  May we assume that you're not leading a Google-clone or some hot, hip deep-pocketed biotech company with an exclusive country club-like recreation or game area?  Setting aside the dream world, how can most organizations or divisions "play while working" and "work while playing" (without, of course, playing at working)?   Not surprisingly, as a self-described "Motivational Psychohumorist" ™ and team-building consultant, these are oft-pondered questions evidenced by the interchangeable labeling of my programs-interventions as "workshops" and "playshops."  I believe a company can embark on both onetime events and build ongoing structures and processes that will generate short- and long-term fire, focus and fun.  Let's call these "The Fun and Focused Four":
1.  Initiate with a Jolt of CPR. 
Start by giving the whole company or an entire subset of the company, e.g., a department or division, a chance to engage with the issue of "Can we have fun and improve productivity-performance."  (Sometimes with a large organization or with divided opinion regarding the issue at hand, it's best to start with a subset so you can do a trial run and, hopefully, gain adherents.)  And when it comes to brainstorming, my preference is to stimulate both sides of the brain through a team discussion and team drawing exercise.  Divide the participants into diverse groups of four or five (e.g., by demographics and departments) and have the teams grapple with the following:  "What are the sources of workplace stress and conflict and what are the barriers -- from the personal to the organizational -- to having fun and being more 'CPR' -- being Creative, Passionate and Risk-Taking."  After ten minutes of discussion (with a recorder taking notes), the groups are then challenged to come up with a thematic group picture or a logo that captures and unifies the individual stress and CPR issues into a visual metaphor.  Consider this example:  Years ago, a burnt out CEO was running his engineering company into the ground.  Actually, he was hardly running the company; more likely, he was off flying his small airplane.  Finally, he hired a Vice-President who called me for some stress and team building help.  In the workshop, one group drew a picture of a menacing creature, calling this big stalking dinosaur a "Troublesaurus."  All the little people in the plant are scattering in fear.  However, one person, bigger than the rest, is totally oblivious, has his back to the dinosaur with his head in the clouds while watching a plane fly by.  Helps you get the picture, doesn't it?

My initially reassuring participants that this is not, "True Confessions," that is, they can share at whatever level feels comfortable, actually seems to free them up.  (Also, affirming that stick figures are perfectly acceptable lowers angst-driven ADD - "Attention Drawing Disorder" - levels.)  Images run the gamut from stalking dinosaurs, time bomb time clocks, never ending mazes, sinking ships in shark infested waters, etc.  Groups are kept on track by having ten-minutes (with periodic time reminders) for discussion and the same for the drawing segment.  Next we turn the room into an art gallery and then into a stage for group show and tell.  Invariably, participants are impressed by their colleagues' creativity and the sharing process brings home the reality that issues and barriers cut across roles, responsibilities and departments.  There definitely is a greater sense of we are all in this together:  our boat may have some leaks, but it's our boat and we can make it even more seaworthy.

Why start off this fun-focus generating process by identifying stressors and barriers?  Whenever you want people to contemplate meaningful and unconventional change, give them a chance to talk first about the anxiety or potential danger before enticing them with the excitement and opportunity.  Also, allowing folks to vent frustration and to exaggerate their angst pictorially helps facilitate being a bit "out-rage-ous."  Throughout the exercise the laughter in the room is palpable and sets the stage for further communal and creative problem-solving.  In fact, the work teams are paired up and are tasked to identify two or three issues from their pictures that are the basis for immediate and future, realistic and imaginative problem-solving.  Consider appointing a "Save the Retreat" "Fun and Focus" matrix team to prioritize the collective issues and strategies and, for starters, to implement (with large group input) one or two achievable workshop/playshop recommendations.

2.  Recognize Humor, Laughter and Creativity Connection.  Why have I emphasized creativity?  Simple…there seems to be a definite link between laughter and the quality of cognitive processing.  For example, noted 20th century political philosopher and author, Arthur Koestler, ingeniously observed this relation between laughter and creativity in his major work, The Act of Creation.  Koestler gleaned the mental and vocal connections among art appreciation, scientific discovery, and humor.  In each of these cognitive undertakings, we connect two or more seemingly unrelated or contradictory ideas and elements and suddenly "get it."  With art, we say "Ah," in science, "Aha!" and when we laugh, it's "Ha-ha."

Going beyond the vocal and philosophical, some research suggests that humor may be a catalyst for innovative problem solving.  In a series of experiments, Dr. Alice Isen, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, has found that people who had just watched a short comedy video of television bloopers were better able to find a creative solution to a puzzling problem than subjects who had exercised, or people who had watched a video about math (zzzzz!).

Humor seems to energize the right side of the brain, allowing you to think more broadly and to make complex associations.  A capacity for being silly and playful facilitates the exaggeration of ideas and yields unexpected events, thereby enabling you to capture or construct elusive relationships.  Consider acclaimed humorist, Mark Twain's marvelous conception of "wit":  Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation.  In fact, I can't think of a better exemplar of professional creativity than an employee bringing fire, focus, freshness and fun to his or her work.  So a workplace that encourages fun likely will free up creative juices and an imaginative and innovative work environment surely blends a sense of individual and team purpose, passion and play.

3.  Encourage Ongoing Team Structure and Spirit.  Of course, many have experienced the short-lived halo effect and ever-present group hugs of an off-site retreat.  (Some alas, have lived through the "let it all hang out" retreat from hell.)  The real challenge, naturally, is bringing a capacity for work and fun into the day-to-day trenches.  For me, the place to cultivate and sustain "fun and focus" is the regular team (and/or department) meeting.  But you may need to shake up the routine.  Here are some tips for enlivening team meetings and helping supervisors and employees think out of the cube:
a) Supervisor Wears Two Hats.  Encourage the supervisor to be both a team player as well as a member of management.  The challenge will be both helping the supervisor loosen the leadership reins and encouraging employees to take more meeting responsibility,
b) Facilitator Rotation.  To help members take more initiative for running the meeting, including setting the agenda, have employees facilitate the meeting.  Consider rotating the facilitator position every month or two,
c) Wavelength Section.  These days, so many meetings are "T 'n T" -- Time- and Task-driven -- that emotional support, including having fun, may be overlooked.  Leave ten minutes or so at the end of your team meeting for extra-ordinary connections:  1) continuing to problem-solve issues identified in the retreat drawings, 2) having team members check in with each other around areas where people are bumping heads or around uncommon mutual support or goal accomplishment, etc.  And, of course, you can start or end a meeting with a fun story.  (For example, I have found getting people to share embarrassing moments or "all too human" errors, to be a great way to have fun, break down barriers, remind culturally diverse groups of their common and imperfect humanity, and enhance team camaraderie.)
d) Team Competition.  Finally, how about creativity contests among teams or departments with "Organizational IRAs" -- Incentives, Rewards/Recognition and Advancement opportunities - for  the most innovative, fun-generating or time- and money-saving ideas and procedures.

4.  Plan for Food, Festivities and Far-Sighted Fun.  The monthly Friday afternoon pizza party never gets old as a vehicle for bringing people together to both lighten the load and stimulate enlightened social/business networking.  But I also like how a Branch Manager at the National Institutes of Health connected with her team.  Twice a year she invited the members to a barbecue at her house.  The agenda:  "how can I, how can the branch, how can the Institute help you advance your career?"  While having fun and strengthening employee motivation and loyalty, she was really generating every day, long range and global ideas for being more productive and creative as a team and an organization.

In summary, skills, structures and strategies for jumpstarting and sustaining a more "fun and focused" workplace have been outlined.  The key is generating an opportunity for people to:  a) engage with real issues, b) be constructively "out-rage-ous," and c) employ individual and team imagination within both retreat-like and routine structures.  Then sit back and reap the laughter, learning and "out of the cube" leadership.  Definitely a formula for motivating purposeful and playful, passionate and performance-driven employees while also "Practicing Safe Stress!"

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
is a psychotherapist and "Motivational Humorist" whose Interactive Keynotes and Kickoffs draw wide and "amazing" acclaim -- from Fortune 100s and Federal Agencies to around the world with Celebrity Cruise Lines.   An OD/Team Building Consultant, Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  Also, the Doc is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat."  See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR).  Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs, call or email the "Stress Doc":  301-946-0865 or stressdoc@aol.com .  And to view web video highlights of a Stress Doc Keynote, go to http://www.stressdoc.com/media_downloads.htm .

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2008

Shrink Rap™ Productions