Learning is fun!

Dr Adam Fraser debunks the myths about learning. Does a sterile, serious environment equal success in learning or is a more easy and relaxed approach the answer?

I was recently speaking to a group of 150 people at a conference in gorgeous New Zealand. Next door to us was a different conference group with whom we shared an adjoining wall. Half way through my presentation I had the group doing an exercise when I noticed a women walk into the room looking rather annoyed. I asked if I could help her, she replied "could you keep it down in here, we cant hear ourselves think next door". Surprised I asked exactly what were we doing wrong. She said, "The incessant laughter from this group is so annoying, would you stop it". I pointed out "I can't stop them from enjoying themselves, and its kind of my job to make sure they have fun while they are here". Then she dropped the bomb "Well we are here to do work and you are interfering with that, why don't you try doing some work rather than skylarking" (interestingly the exercise they were doing was mapping out their top three strategic activities for the next quarter – hardly playing charades).

I would like to be able to say that I had a witty comeback to that but I was left with my mouth open. Wanting to smooth things over after we finished I went next door to apologise to the lady in question. When I walked in the room I was stunned at what a sterile and prickly environment it was. They were all in silence working around round tables. They looked at me with such contempt I felt like something they had stepped in. I thought "Who stole the fun!".

On my trip home I started to think which environment would have been best for learning. We often (like my friend at the conference) think serious and stuffy equals good work, while fun and high-energy equals poor work. I began my quest to find out the answer!

I was pleased to find a whole heap of great new research (with solid science behind it) out there looking at this issue. What it showed is that when humans are in a positive emotional state their creativity and innovation skyrockets. Positive emotions have been conclusively shown to broaden our minds to what is possible. In contrast when a person is in a neutral (neither positive or negative) or negative emotional state they move into a state that encourages them to stick to their current circumstances. In other words the pessimist may avoid disaster but they will never create anything new.

On a side note while I was writing this article my father called (a Scottish motor mechanic) he asked me what I was doing and I told him about the article. There was stunned silence, he said "I don't really understand that, I was brought up with a Protestant work ethic, where work was something you endured and you were punished for having fun." Mmmmm maybe that is the reason for this attitude.

Positive emotions = broad mind
Negative or neutral emotions = closed mind

Students have been shown to increase their test scores by up to fifty per cent if they are in a positive state before the exam. Doctors in a positive mood are more accurate and faster with diagnosis, than neutral or negative doctors. Berkley University showed that managers with greater positivity were more accurate and careful in their strategic decisions. Also interpersonally they boosted their teams morale and the teams were more co-ordinated and effective in their activities. The reason for this is that a brain in positive emotion is more effective at organising information, retaining information and the retrieval of information.

The University of Toronto actually showed that positive emotion even went as far as improving people's peripheral vision so the brain could take in more information. Finally when we think of a negotiator or dealmaker we often think of a person who is poker faced, even tempered, neutral and tough. However North Western University showed that Negotiators that strategically displayed positivity were more likely to gain concessions, close deals, and incorporate future business relationships into the contracts they forged. Building this sort of positive environment in an organisation is not about having ping-pong tables, bean bags and karaoke machines. From the case studies I researched the main drivers of this type of culture are:

  1. Having leaders with an optimistic mindset who regularly express positive emotion.
  2. Regularly celebrating what went well (the subject of a previous newsletter) and analysing why it went well, then building on it.
  3. Giving recognition and praise. In fact one study showed that project teams with a manager who was encouraging of their team performed thirty one per cent better than teams with managers who were less positive and less open with praise.

Case study

If you thought positivity couldn't result in a bottom line business outcome this case study will change your mind.

A client of mine was ranked as an average performer in their industry (the industry rates all the companies annually). They were not the best, but not the worst. They had a new CEO come on board who was incredibly enthusiastic and optimistic. In addition to this I did a lot of work with them around the above three areas. The organisation embraced this new attitude and leadership style and began to really flourish. They had a goal to be ranked number one in three years and they achieved it in nine months. What happened?

Well a number of things. Firstly one of the top ranked companies appointed a new CEO who was more interested in power and control than culture and engagement. The top sales staff from this company did not enjoy the culture shift and began to look around for other options. They heard about the company I was working with and their new culture. One of the top sales people left and made the move and when she got there she found it to be better than she could ever imagined. People supported each other, they celebrated victory, they had fun and the place had an energy she had never come across. She then spread the word and the top performers from many of the other companies (who were over being treated poorly) in their industry all left and joined this new company.

The combination of having a great leader, an elite sales force and supportive culture made them unstoppable. Also this company has now launched one of the most innovative and game changing initiatives that the industry has seen in 50 years.

If you think positivity in the work place does not relate to serious dollars think again.