“Let’s get serious! Not!”

Posted by jlubans on November 09, 2015

Caption: Will Rogers (atop the bull): “Do the best you can, and don't take life too serious.”

How serious are you?* Answer this question:
“If a police officer arrests a mime, should she say he has the right to remain silent?”
a. A stupid question deserves a stupid answer.
b. Stale
c. Kind of funny
d. Hilarious

If you answered a or d, I’d be worried about your seriousness index.
So, what’s brought on my Seriousness fixation? An art house movie, The Driving Lesson. An alleged romantic comedy about New Yorkers and their personal issues, there was the usual marriage break-up; the straying husband and the successful literary wife now left to struggle for independence. The film had some comedic moments but for the most part it was a self-parody – unintended – of affluent New Yorkers all behaving super seriously - with one notable exception – like the denizens of an Upper West Side TV sitcom.
I came away bemused and wondering if less seriousness and more levity might not have made it a better movie.
What about being too serious at work?
My low seriousness index probably did not always serve me well. Even when outcomes went quite well, there was always the insinuation by some that I did not really know what I was doing; that I was more of a fool than I appeared.
When asked about his irreverent way of leading, Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher called it “management by fooling around”. He explained, “by that I mean taking our jobs seriously, but not ourselves.”
That philosophy is incorporated in SWAs statement of values for cultivating a fun loving
Have fun
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Maintain perspective (balance)
It may be that this permission to enjoy work and to maintain equilibrium between the office and the job is why SWA is the only American airline never to have a losing year. Most other airlines – no doubt very serious at every level - have difficulty competing with SWA. Those that do complete tend to eschew, like SWA, excessive seriousness.
Besides a lack of humor about your importance to the organization, there’s a tendency among the serious to engage in non-work.
What’s non-work? It’s a busyness, which superficially looks like something is happening, but actually you are adding zero to the bottom line or to the output of your team or department. Being so busy leaves you no time or energy to think about what you are doing or to reflect on improving.
Real work adds value, it improves something, and it validates a process. You set aside time routinely to think about what you do and why you are doing it and what you can do to improve.
Want examples of non-work?
Not so long ago, I served, in my professional association, on a program committee. There were a dozen of us. We’d closet ourselves in a windowless meeting room and review, at each annual conference, the proposed programs for the next year.
For 10 hours, strung out over three days, we’d review the stack of applications, page by page, largely making sure that all the blanks were filled in – I never saw a single program proposal rejected by the committee. Nor did this group ever come up with a program idea. That’s 120 hours of very busy non-work. I only lasted through the first year of my two-year appointment.
Similarly, non-work is afoot when you are the third signature on a four signature form (when one signature would suffice).
Or, worse, non-work thrives when an organization insists on supervisors reviewing everyone’s work, even when a person consistently achieves a 99% accuracy rate and the 1% error has a negligible effect on the quality of the product. Those supervisors proudly pin on their “Master Jobsworth” badges and assure you, if you have the temerity to ask, that the review is essential and any steps taken to stop it would jeopardize the quality of the unit’s output. They give no thought to the time that could be gained for real work.
And, let's not forget that annual orgy of seriousness and non-work: performance appraisal!
So, if you find yourself overly serious at work, reflect on why. Is it more non-work than real work? If the former, then take Will Rogers' advice and figure out what can you do to trade out the non-work for real work?

*One of the questions found in Charles C Manz’s essay, “Let’s Get Serious! . . . Really?” Journal of Management Inquiry July 2014 23: 339-342.

© John Lubans 2015
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