This is a conversation that’s currently trending in the business world. I know.
It’s the habit of frequently bookending what you say with light chuckles. I know.
It sounds ridiculously trivial but the conversation is out there and might just have some more serious ramifications.
The concerns around the habit are that whilst, in some circumstances, it may diffuse tension or soften an uncomfortable situation, cumulatively, it begins to undermine you. The argument being that people may start to take you less seriously or find you less credible.
This piece isn’t to discredit the fact that the behaviour undoubtedly has an impact, in terms of how you’re perceived. All behaviour does. But the discussion places emphasis on the wrong thing and is part of a wider unhelpful obsession in business.
External, surface effects over deeper, underlying causes.
By only focusing on the effects, you’ll never fix the problem – if, indeed, it is a problem at all.
All these types of conversations seem to do is get people to turn in on themselves. It’s like watching a speech that you’ve done back on camera or doing it in front of the mirror and using that to “correct” yourself. It only leads to self obsession.
No-one wants that.
There’s such a strong emphasis placed on what to do and what not to do to get ahead and succeed, without enough of a curiosity as to why. Without enough curiosity as to what it is about our business cultures that elicit these unnatural behaviours.
For example, let’s say that the conclusion to the question, “is laughter padding holding you back?” is “yes.” Without the curiosity as to what’s driving the habit, the upshot of this conclusion will simply be to focus attention on stopping it. Where’s the learning there? You may stop that particular habit, but at what cost?
And let’s say that the conclusion to the question, “is laughter padding holding you back?” is “no, it’s really beneficial.” Without the curiosity as to why, the upshot of this conclusion will simply be to focus attention on doing it more. You may now embed this new habit, but, again, at what cost?
Either way, the result is really self-focused, contrived and likely to inhibit people from simply showing up as themselves. You’ve always got this list of behaviours to either do more or less of.
Surely the less that people are wrapped up in themselves, the better. We use the trust equation extensively in our work and time and again we find that the biggest killer to trust within an organisation is far too much self-orientation. A collection of people ultimately speaking and acting in service to themselves because they don’t feel safe enough. It’s survival behaviour. So, let’s not ask questions that lead to more of this.
Some better questions:
For the business
- How do you encourage cultures of “flow” (do take a look at our webinar on this) where people feel comfortable and supported to simply show up and be themselves? In the process, freeing up a load of headspace to focus on being generous and doing really great work.
- What is it about your business culture that perhaps encourages habits such as “laughter padding” which surely bely a lack of comfort to just be?
Keeping it really simple…
- How comfortable do people feel in your organisation?
- Could you be part of the problem? What might you be doing that’s making people around you feel uncomfortable?
**nb: all references to comfort in this piece are exclusively in relation to “being ourselves” and do not preclude the environment being challenging and stretching us in our work. This is purely about comfort in our own skin. In this context, conforming, pretending, projecting or hiding to “fit in” is energy wasted. Being ourselves is energy saved.
For the individual
- Ie. if you’re the laughter padder, or whatever the external habit might be, go deeper to ask yourself why it is and what triggers it as opposed to focussing on stopping it or doing more of it. Approach this with curiosity over judgement. And remember, it’s not all on you. We don’t behave in a vacuum.
So, onto the wider business point:
On the whole, we’re not comfortable enough with who we are.
Most importantly, our business environments don’t truly permit us to be comfortable just being ourselves. It’s too often fraught with risk and judgement.
From our experience out in the field, this comes up all of the time. 75% of people say that they don’t feel confident to follow their gut instincts. 61% of people say that they don’t feel confident to be their authentic selves. This is pretty damning.
Where does it start?
Most business cultures still place a heavy pressure on us to conform to something – a way of looking, sounding and behaving. It’s got better, but it’s still there. The injunction to “keep it professional” at work sits deep in our psyche’s. Laughter padding smacks of a habit picked up as a mechanism to survive an environment that just doesn’t feel safe.
And this starts from the moment that someone connects with your company. It starts at the job interview, even before that – with the job spec and interview requirements.
So, in unpacking this conversation around laughter padding, it’s turned into a pretty huge subject. Naturally we can’t fix everything in a single blog. But here’s just a little guidance that will make a difference to encouraging authenticity, comfort and flow in your organisation if acted on:
1. Recruit Difference
We’re always on the lookout for “like-minded” people. It’s drilled into us. Biologically, we’re drawn towards people that are similar to ourselves – appearance, ways of thinking, ways of speaking etc. etc. – and it’s all quite unconscious. We feel safe here. But it’s not good for growth and progress and sets a precedent. “This is the way we do things here.” So, actively seek out difference and create an environment where the interviewee feels safe to “be” or “flow” rather than “conform” or “fit in.”
2. Banish corporate relics
Break down corporate formalities that serve no purpose and make people conform – removing nuance, difference and ultimately the ability for people to just be themselves.
3. Check yourself
Start with you and make a note of any time that you pull back from allowing your true self to flow and why. Is it a “you” thing or a “business culture” thing? Either way, take some action to work on this. Also, consider whether you might, in any way, be contributing to the discomfort of those around you. Again, take action.
So, one more time:
Is laughter padding holding people back?
Like with other issues such as uncertain body language, unhelpful vocal habits or any other external effects, it’s a manifestation of something deeper – whether that’s something very personal or symptomatic of the business culture. It’s the wrong question to ask if you want to provoke real, positive change.
So, let’s start asking better questions.
By Chris Wickenden, 02.02.23
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