At a time when Gallup polls consistently show that about 70 percent of the U.S. workforce feels disengaged from work, and research shows that boredom has become the second most commonly-hidden emotion on the job, after anger, Tim Leberecht argues that bringing our more ‘romantic’ side to work –meaning our emotions and creativity — can make it more meaningful and even magical. Leberecht, chief marketing officer for the innovative global architecture and design firm NBBJ, and author of “The Business Romantic: Give Everything. Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself,” explains:
Q: When most people think of romance at work, they think of office romances. But you’re talking about something else entirely, right?
Leberecht: Right! I believe the good life is a more romantic life. That’s why we have to look at business, because it so dominates our lives. But I’m not talking about office romance. I’m referring to the features of Romanticism, based on the art and philosophy movement of the late 19th century [that celebrated emotion, the individual, imagination, nature and spontaneity.]
The way I see business is through the lens of a Romantic, which means I put a great emphasis on emotion over reason. I really embrace the beauty that comes with unexpected events, awe and wonder and unpredictability. The joy that comes from losing control and not being a master of the universe. The feeling that there’s something more meaningful and deeper in even the most mundane moments of business.
Q: Are you kidding me– the joy that comes from losing control? Most businesses, most workers tend to see unpredictability as a really bad thing.
Leberecht: Business is designed to minimize risk. We try to make everything predictable and quantifiable and familiar. That has its merits. But if that’s the sole paradigm of doing business, we really risk engineering creativity and joy out of our work lives.
There’s two aspects where losing control is really important. One is innovation.
In order to have really truly disruptive ideas, you need to be a fool – someone who challenges the status quo, and is very comfortable with ambiguity, with uncertainty and open-ended outcomes and unpredictability, which is the whole point of innovation. The more you can design [worker] comfort with ambiguity and unpredictability into your organizational culture, the more you’ll be able to embrace and benefit from innovation.
The other benefit of losing control is really in those macro moments of unexpected wonder and delight. So often, the most meaningful moments come from ones we didn’t expect – encounters with strangers, or something that violates our cognitive models, something happens that we didn’t expect, which makes it memorable. Moments of surprise, moments of delight can help us fight the deadening routine that’s so often inevitable because we overdesign and over-engineer all of business processes for predictability. At the same time, that opens the door to cynicism, boredom, routine.
And the best way to fight that is to create space for the unexpected.
Q: Where have you seen romantic principles at work, and how well do they work?
Leberecht: I have yet to find the quintessential romantic business. But I have Rules of Enchantment I present as best practices:
1. Mystery. Mystery and intrigue can help engage employees and customers. Etsy, the e-commerce site for handmade crafts, has an internal secret society, The Ministry of Unusual Business. No one really knows what they exactly do, or who belongs. They just know the society has a mandate to bring happiness and delight to work. That brings intrigue and makes it exciting for employees.
There’s a series called House of Genius that convenes 10 to 15 business people to have a conversation about business challenges. But they twist it. No one discloses their identity. That levels the social bias, so you might elicit a different kind of feedback if you eliminate status and titles. But more importantly, it plays with this notion of intrigue. There’s a certain suspense in not knowing who is in the room.
PrimeProduce, a New York startup, even holds events and meetings in the dark. Meetings are a prime opportunity for romanticizing. So how can you run meetings differently so they create an element of surprise, push you out of your comfort zone, make the familiar strange again? You can do that by holding meetings in the dark, or swapping roles, or even running mystery meetings, without purpose.
Some Silicon Valley startups have Secret Rooms. American Express introduced a program called Nextpedition, a mystery trip that doesn’t tell the traveler where they’re going until the last minute. The Airline KLM launched a surprise campaign, randomly handing out small gifts to travelers. Interflora monitored Twitter for customers having a bad day and sent them a bouquet of flowers.
All of that is designed to bring thrill back, to replace the boredom and routine that we so often face in business, and to reinvigorate employees in an age where everything is transparent, predictable and standardized.
2. The Renaissance of Small, Intimate Formats. There’s been a recent report by the Lifeboat organization that reported a crisis of friendship in the U.S. [Only 25 percent say they’re “extremely satisfied” with their friendships.] And another study found that the number of close friends U.S. citizens have has declined since 1990.
Knowledge workers can spend 70 to 75 percent of waking time at work. We crave intimacy in the business environment. So how can we create moments of closeness in the digital age, in the commodified, rather disenchanted way of doing business?
What some companies are doing is using the good old dinner format to bring teams together. A series we’re hosting with the World Economic Forum hosts 15 strangers, usually around one topic, and at the end of the evening, the last one giving a toast has to sing. It creates safe space, where they can bring true authentic selves to conversation, rather than their talking points.
The more we can create these safe spaces for being vulnerable, being authentic in business, especially at the leadership level, the more people will connect with each other and that create more meaning and commitment from everyone involved.
3. Romantics are very often rebels. There are some companies, like Virgin and Accenture, who have begun to recognize the value of rebels, who often operate in the shadows of an organization, and have created platforms for those rebels, dissidents and contrarians so their voices can be heard. There are movements like Black Sheep, Rebels at Work. They’re elevating the roles of those who might not always be in line with the company line, but they provide value because they challenge the status quo.
Q: So what can a bored, disengaged worker do to bring romance into their workday?
Leberecht: I would look at three dimensions:
Do Good: We’ve seen a surge in purpose-driven businesses, the rise of conscious capitalism. That’s increasingly important for Millennials. So there’s a mainstream recognition of that.
Feel Good: Find a much more conscious and mindful way to reconcile work and life.
Feel More: Really opening up and expressing yourself with the full range of your intuition and emotion at work. That’s really what business romance allows you to do. Now, as an employee at a workplace, what does that mean? It means you start at a very, very small scale. Romance is a mindset, a choice. So, put on a romantic lens, and reframe the day to day encounters you have at work.
Apply the principal of making the familiar strange. Create moments of friction and surprise in your day. Challenge routines in your worklife. You can start on the way to work. Talk to a stranger. There’s research that shows that people who talk to strangers report higher levels of happiness, because it’s unexpected, it makes you come alive.
There are event formats such as Daybreaker, a new series that allows business professionals to meet at 6 am and enjoy an ecstatic, collective dance before they go to work.
And once you’re at work, you can do simple things like swapping desks. Role swap. Change routines. Hold a meeting outside. Or in the dark. Create a secret society or a Business Romantic club and be creative. When I worked at Frog Design, we had internal speed meet sessions, to help old and new employees get to know each other.
You can have off-the-record private dinners to help you expand the emotional landscape of your organization. The main point is that you create space to express emotion that usually is eliminated from day to day work.
Q: Do you have romance in your own workday?
Leberecht: I’ve used romance when it comes to hiring, or in making decisions, going with what feels right emotionally, not just what the data shows. I’m creating a Business Romantics Society to share best practices.
But I’ll be the first to admit my own romantic track record is mixed. It’s hard to live up to these principles every day. The point is to try.
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