When many think of excitement they hardly relate it to the workplace as it doesn’t sound ‘serious’ or important enough. You see, the workplace is where ‘grown- ups’ spend most of their time, doing important ‘grown- up’ things. There is, therefore, no time for what many consider to be childlike emotions. And so, in our quest to remain serious and professional, many of our workplaces are dull and devoid of colour.
Perhaps this defines workplaces as constructed by older generations where excitement was only reserved for year-end functions and, if we stretch things, ten minutes of cake and singing on a co-worker’s birthday. This is the workplace and the leadership I was introduced to when I started working two decades ago. Excitement in the workplace was not even an expectation I had and so it was never demanded.
Where many leaders find themselves now is leading people who expect the workplace to also be ‘exciting’. The younger generations do not compartmentalise their lives like we did and expect their wishes to be catered to. Forward-thinking organisations such as Google appear to have anticipated this and seem to be deliberate about normalising excitement as an acceptable expectation of the workplace.
So how does a leader infuse excitement into the workplace? How do we avoid the extreme of turning workplaces into a college campus canteen chaos? I think the starting point is to define what we mean by excitement.
The Oxford dictionary defines excitement as, ‘a feeling of great enthusiasm and eagerness’. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it as, ‘an emotional state marked by enthusiasm, eagerness or anticipation and general arousal’.
Looking at these definitions we can conclude that excitement is about a heightened emotional state. We know from neuroscience that when the body experiences a heightened emotional state certain chemicals / hormones get released. If the emotions are negative the fight/flight/freeze hormones such as adrenalin are released, while if it’s a positive experience, then the feel-good hormones such as dopamine get released. We also know from neuroscience that any prolonged heightened emotional state is actually not good for human beings as the body cannot sustain long periods of any kind of emotional arousal. It functions better in a state of equilibrium. Which is perhaps why the older model workplace reserved excitement for special occasions only.
The challenge for the modern-day leader is understanding where the balance has shifted to and how to up the excitement experience at work while still keep things professional. What also complicates things is that, ultimately, the experience of excitement is individual and subjective. What one team member finds exciting, the other may find overwhelming (or even underwhelming). En masse excitement is rare and is usually accompanied by some kind of stimulant such as alcohol at year-end celebrations.
So what is a well-intentioned, well-meaning leader to do?
There are three potential areas where the leader can achieve this.
Is there something coming up that your team can look forward to? How do you build up towards that event? The event itself need not be that exciting (e.g. a conference or a beginning of a project); however, the anticipation could be. You see, in most cases when people are anticipating something they are likely to experience a bit of anxiety because of the unknown. What a leader can do is to turn the emotions from anxiety (negative) to excitement (positive) and create a genuine feeling of ‘looking forward to’ about the upcoming event.
Positivepsychology.com refers to flow as the state of being, ‘completely and utterly immersed in a task’ and that this is, ‘one of life’s highly enjoyable states of being’. Do your people enjoy what they do? Do they get so lost in the process that they lose track of time? Is there intrinsic joy just from doing what one needs to do? Again, the task itself need not be that exciting, e.g. balancing books (apologies to the number crunchers); however, one could get lost in the process of making the books balance that they lose track of time. So, instead of making that process frustrating and boring, how does a leader make it joyful and meaningful?
Leaders need to allow for a celebration of milestones and not reserve celebrations for final results. Create milestones which are close enough that the experience of celebration (and therefore excitement) is relatively frequent. These could be individual or collective milestones. Not only do these create bursts of excitement but they are also opportunities for reenergising the team. People derive great emotional reward from a sense of achievement, no matter how small the achievement.
Finally, excitement in the workplace is not all about balloons and streamers. It is about the experience of positive emotions and high energy. The role of the leader is not only to make it okay for excitement to be experienced at work but to also model it.