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Dr. Jamie Gruman: “One way for managers to build a thriving work culture is to inject more fun and play into work”

One way for managers to build a thriving work culture is to inject more fun and play into work. Getting work done is serious business, and when deadlines aren’t met, for example, a stern tone is appropriate. However, this doesn’t mean that work environments can’t be fun, playful places when things are running smoothly or […]


One way for managers to build a thriving work culture is to inject more fun and play into work. Getting work done is serious business, and when deadlines aren’t met, for example, a stern tone is appropriate. However, this doesn’t mean that work environments can’t be fun, playful places when things are running smoothly or when situations are tense and could use some stress relief. Injecting some humor and fun into work processes has, in fact, been suggested as one of the characteristics of highly functioning teams. I’ll often crack a joke during particularly tense moments in meetings. It loosens people up and usually helps the group get past the hurdle that’s stalling it. Of course, this has to done judiciously.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Jamie Gruman. Dr. Gruman is an award-winning business professor at the University of Guelph, in Canada. He is also a founding member of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association and served two terms as Chair of the Board. His research and writing focus on issues related to general well-being and well-being in the workplace. He is co-developer of “The Engagement Management Model”, “Socialization Resources Theory”, and coined the term “e-socialization”. His latest book, called Boost: The Science of Recharging Yourself in an Age of Unrelenting Demands, summarizes what research tells us about how to most successfully recover from work and other daily obligations so we can be happy, healthy and effective. His personal website is www.jamiegruman.com.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Gruman! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I actually never planned on being an academic. All through my Ph.D. I intended on becoming a consultant, but then I did my doctoral internship at a leadership consulting firm where I worked for someone I can only describe as a sociopath, which turned me off working in the consulting industry. However, it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I “retreated” back into academia, which has turned out the be the best career decision I could have ever made. Now I get to spend my days continually learning about interesting things and can still venture into organizations to speak, consult, share my thoughts about important topics, and make a big difference in the lives of individuals and entire organizations. I’ve had other jobs too. I once worked at a bank but got fired on the first day. A guy came in and asked me to check his balance…. so I pushed him over!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

What was particularly interesting to me when I became Chair of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association was how the decisions I chose to make, and the issues I chose to advance or support, came to define me as a leader. As a leader you’re on stage at every moment, and people are watching you looking for signals of what’s important and valued. You’re also placed in situations that are new and sometimes uncomfortable and the way you handle yourself determines who you are as a leader. As Chair I became sensitized to the numerous defining moments that occurred on a regular basis. My actions during these defining moments not only reflected my existing values and attitudes but came to define my leadership identity. Did I want to be “this” kind of leader or “that” kind of leader? Did I want people to perceive me “this” way or “that” way? Which way was in the best interest of the team? Which way was in the best interest of the organization? This experience made me interested in a more developmental approach to understanding leadership characterized by leadership scholars such as David Day and generated in me a sensitivity to the fact that the decisions we make as leaders are enormously consequential because they come to define our leadership identify. Aristotle said “make good habits and they will make you”. The same applies to leadership.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Oh yes. I recently published a journal article that presents a new framework for thinking about “the good life” that is explicitly based on the idea of balance. It’s meant to advance the field of positive psychology by helping people understand that thinking and acting “positively” is more nuanced than appears at first blush. For example, being in a good mood may put a smile on your face but may also make you more susceptible to falling victim to stereotypes. So, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Maybe both. I’m also writing up a paper that shows how trying to be happy can paradoxically undermine your well-being, and another that introduces a form of happiness that has been overlooked psychology, which I call Halcyonic well-being and involves being fully in the present moment and letting goals drift into the background. All of these have direct and immediate effects of helping people lead better lives. In the organizational area, I just revised a chapter that discusses how organizations can build a climate of employee voice engagement, which is when employees express themselves fully and freely. This is of particular importance today. Competitive advantage during the fourth industrial revolution will come from a workforce that is fully engaged and willing to speak up about ideas, problems and new opportunities. I also just signed up to co-edit a special edition of a journal that will present cutting edge ideas about how human resource management practices can promote positive psychology. My hope is that it will advance our understanding of how to build flourishing employees and thriving organizations.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Unfortunately, these sorts of results aren’t unusual. The article notes that 58% of managers get no training. This is consistent with research showing that about 50% of managers are inept. It’s not fun to work for an incompetent boss. Also, employees are often worked to the bone which is why some employees pretend to work more than they actually do. Recent headlines also reveal that working conditions in some organizations are torturous with some employees even unable to take bathroom breaks in order to make strict targets. In general, big organizations often have psychologically unhealthy environments. They are hierarchical authoritarian systems that limit people’s freedom and demand obedience. This may be at least somewhat necessary in order to organize large groups of people, but it nonetheless has a dampening effect on people’s spirits. Business organizations are designed to make money, and the people at the top of the hierarchy are frequently “numbers” folks, such as finance and strategy types, who, although brilliant at what they do, are often unaware and sometimes uninterested in the “human” side of work. So, the internal structures and systems in (big) businesses frequently don’t support humanizing the workplace. This is unfortunate, because not only does a more humanized workplace make people happier, it can have desirable effects on individual and business performance.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

I do a lot of research and writing on employee engagement so I know that the research on engagement reveals that engagement is a key driver of individual attitudes, behavior, and performance as well as organizational performance, productivity, retention, financial performance, and even shareholder return. As I discuss in my 2014 article “What do we Really Know about Employee Engagement”, engagement is related to job attitudes (e.g., job satisfaction, organizational commitment), job performance and organizational citizenship behavior, and health and wellness outcomes, and negatively related to turnover intentions. A meta-analysis (a study that statistically combines the results of other studies) on engagement found that it was related to higher commitment, health, performance, and lower turnover intentions. Another meta-analysis found that engagement was positively related to task performance and contextual performance. So, numerous individual-level outcomes are associated with engagement.

Engagement has also been linked to organizational-level outcomes. For example, one study found that employee engagement was related to business-unit outcomes (customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability, turnover, and safety) in a large sample of business units. A 2009 study found that in a sample of 65 firms from different industries, the top 25 percent on an engagement index had greater return on assets (ROA), profitability, and more than double the shareholder value compared to the bottom 25 percent.

Finally, engagement has implications for the health and well-being of employees. However, although engagement has been found to be positively related to self-report or subjective indicators of health and well-being (e.g., lower anxiety, depression, and stress), I am not aware of any research that has shown a significant relationship between engagement and more objective or physiological indicators of health and well-being.

Overall, the available evidence presents a compelling case that engagement impacts employees in numerous ways including their health, well-being and performance, which in turn has implications for productivity and profitability. Engagement is, of course, only one specific way to characterize whether employees are happy or not, but other research shows that characterizing employee well-being more generally has similar effects.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

One way for managers to build a thriving work culture is to inject more fun and play into work. Getting work done is serious business, and when deadlines aren’t met, for example, a stern tone is appropriate. However, this doesn’t mean that work environments can’t be fun, playful places when things are running smoothly or when situations are tense and could use some stress relief. Injecting some humor and fun into work processes has, in fact, been suggested as one of the characteristics of highly functioning teams. I’ll often crack a joke during particularly tense moments in meetings. It loosens people up and usually helps the group get past the hurdle that’s stalling it. Of course, this has to done judiciously.

A second thing managers and executives should do is create a culture that is psychologically safe. If people don’t offer suggestions for fear of looking foolish, don’t take chances for fear of being scolded, and don’t point out problems for fear of being regarded as a troublemaker, the culture is not safe. In a psychologically safe environment employees feel free to speak up, take appropriate risks, and talk truth to power. In such an environment everyone can act like a leader. Formal leaders promote such an environment by encouraging regular feedback, empowering others, and praising experimentation and creativity.

Another thing that promotes a thriving work culture is for leaders to insist on civility and other positive workplace practices. Positive workplace practices include treating people with dignity and respect, supporting each other and demonstrating care, and being forgiving when people make mistakes. Not only do such practices make work environments more humane, they are associated with organizational performance, and as positive practices improve so does organizational performance.

Another way to build a flourishing company is to do a deep dive into work-life balance practices. For example, let people sleep on the job. Research shows that naps as short as 10 minutes can restore alertness and improve performance. These days the line between work and home is blurring tremendously. For instance, because of communication technologies, it’s now commonplace for some employees to be contacted outside of normal work hours on a regular basis, essentially putting them ‘on call’ all the time, which research shows is bad for them. This is an example of work bleeding into home time. Progressive companies limit this practice, and also allow home time to bleed into work time. If an employee is tired because you emailed her at 11:30 last night and expected a response, let her take a short nap at work. And sleep on the job yourself to show that it’s an acceptable practice. Allow the blurring of work and home to go both ways.

Finally, think like a psychologist. Work to satisfy your employees’ basic needs so they can flourish. The most fundamental needs typically studied in organizations are the needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. The need for autonomy is the need to feel that our actions are freely chosen. So, give people some discretion in how they handle their tasks. The need for relatedness is the need to enjoy close, satisfying relationships. So, organize social events that allow people to mingle and build friendships and have some choice over who they work with. The need for competence is the need to feel effective by mastering challenges. So, give people tasks that expand their capabilities and allow them to grow. It’s also advisable to satisfy their need for self-esteem, which is the need to feel worthwhile and that you matter. So, talk to people about how they make a difference and how their contribution fits into the larger whole. Small acts of appreciation make a big difference.

The “competitive” hat that leaders wear when they look outside the organization is different from the “community building” hat they should wear when they look internally. Being a successful leader and building a fantastic work culture requires that leaders be versatile and inconsistent in the way they handle external and internal matters.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Changing the broader culture to support more humane work environments will go a long way towards improving the US work culture. In the end, this is not just a philosophical position, it can come about by paying attention to “what works” in terms of employee productivity and business success. It is easy to make the business case for thriving organizations, as noted above. The long-term viability of organizations and the human capital that allows them to thrive is promoted by building a fantastic work culture. Productivity goes up, turnover goes down, intellectual capital remains in the organization and innovation is rampant. This is not to suggest that in a “positive” organization everyone arrives in the morning holding hands and singing songs. The realities of deadlines, politics, and turf wars will never disappear. But as human beings we have a tendency to emphasize the “bad” and downplay the “good”. This happens for very understandable evolutionary reasons, but we need to recognize this so that we can overcome it when appropriate and make an effort not just to curtail the bad, but nurture the best within us and our organizations. The broader culture is individualistic, competitive and greedy. When organizations begin to strategically balance individualism with collectivism, competition with cooperation, and greed with generosity we will set the stage for flourishing work cultures.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My own style is a combination of “pacesetting” and silly. My colleagues often tell me I don’t suffer fools gladly. I expect top notch performance and have high standards. This makes it difficult for me to work with B players. However, I also like to enjoy myself and be light-hearted when appropriate. Life is too short to be serious all the time. Sure, the work has to get done and it has to get done well, but assuming that’s happening we should also be able to take pleasure in the process of getting things done. The journey is the destination. I joke around a lot. It can be a problem when new people mistake my amiability for weakness. But they learn quickly not to conflate frivolity with a lack of standards. This comes up a lot as a professor. My students often perform poorly on the first exam in whatever course I’m teaching because the confuse the fact that I come across as light-hearted with being an easy grader. I can be light-hearted and have fun because I know my stuff and have practiced my craft for two decades, but students need to buckle down and work hard because they haven’t yet mastered their craft. Tightrope walkers make it look simple, but if you or I tried to do it we’d fall off the rope repeatedly. I’m a professional, but being professional doesn’t mean having to be formal all the time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Very early in my career I worked at a consulting firm where I was asked by the senior management team to do a competitive analysis of my industry. As part of my research I started calling up competitors and pretending I was a potential client seeking their services so I could get a sense of their offerings and pricing. I had no qualms about this approach so casually mentioned it to the President of the firm one day. He advised me to stop doing it. Not sternly. In a very grandfatherly way he explained that the only thing you have in your career is your reputation, and you don’t want to compromise it. He told me that if I couldn’t get the information without misrepresenting myself, that was ok. We could live without it. That lesson stuck with me. Here was the President of a successful organization saying that business results are not the end all and be all. Your integrity matters more. He spoke of the rocking chair test — Imagine yourself in old age sitting on your porch in your rocking chair. As you think back over the course of your life and career are you proud of yourself? Did you stay true to your values? If you compromised them at all, was it for a good reason or were you just being pragmatic and efficient? These days when I teach my students I share with them a quote from Laurence Peter — “Would the boy you were be proud of the man you are”? Similarly, would the girl you were be proud of the woman you are? I’m grateful for that early career lesson and having had the opportunity to learn it. I strive to be proud of myself, and I succeed…at least most of the time.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I do a fair amount of public speaking. Many of these are paid engagement but I also make sure to include a number of pro-bono talks in my schedule each year. Some are long-standing. For example, I’ve been volunteering my time with the Children’s Wish Foundation for about 15 years. These freebies are often the most fun and impactful talks I give. Because I’m not being paid I feel no pressure to “perform”. Instead I just have fun, but having fun usually translates into a great performance. So, I get to share my lessons with the world, change the lives of the people in the audience, and have a fantastic time doing it. I’m a very lucky guy. I try not to get accustomed to my circumstances and continue to appreciate how lucky I am. It’s tough because humans are designed to habituate to things. It takes effort.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Memento Mori” — “Remember, you will die”. I know this sounds morose. But it isn’t. Death is a natural part of life. Imagine how scary it would be if you knew you would never die! It would be a curse. Remembering that our time here is temporary reminds us to live each day to the fullest. To hug our kids and tell them we love them. To try new things. To embrace life and squeeze out of it everything we can. We tend to ignore our mortality and be uncomfortable with the idea. There is even research showing that we tend to like people less when they bring it up. This is unfortunate. Acknowledging our eventual passing helps us embrace living. Recognizing my own mortality is relevant to me every single day. It plays a huge role in what I prioritize and how I spend my time. For instance, sometimes when I’m busy getting through “a few emails” on the weekend and my 5-year-old comes into my office asking to play, I often instinctively tell him I’m too busy, but then I’ll reflect on my priorities for a moment, remember that my time to play with him is limited, close my laptop and go have some fun. When I’m gone from this planet nobody will remember if I responded to those emails quickly or not, but my son will remember how often I played with him. I’ll be proud of this decision sitting in my rocking chair.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be to help as many people as possible live their lives to the fullest, regardless of whether people want to lead a multi-billion-dollar transnational corporation, take up figure skating in retirement, or build the world’s largest collection of sea shells. It can also mean giving oneself permission to take an adult “time out” to reevaluate one’s life or just take the time necessary to recharge your batteries and not be ‘on the go’ all the time. In fact, that is what my latest book is all about. All this is part of why I co-founded the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. Affecting tons of people is great, but if even a single person is inspired to make a positive change in their life as a result of reading this piece, I will be happy to have participated in this project. Thank you for the opportunity.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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