The best medicine

Did you know that you're 30 times more likely to laugh if you're with somebody else than if you're alone? Why is that?

Yesterday, I came across an example of how laughter spreads. It’s a video my German friends might be familiar with, as it was taken by an improv group on the Berlin Metro in 2011. It starts when a few actors look at their phone and begin laughing. Then several passengers start to smile. Within minutes, laughter has spread to people throughout the entire car. 

I couldn't help but laugh when I watched it. Since it was uploaded, over 7 million people have seen it , and there were numerous articles about it in the press.

“The popularity of the video may help to dispel the belief that Germany is a humorless nation. In a poll conducted earlier this year, More than 30,000 people in 15 European countries were asked to rank the nations with the worst sense of humor and Germany came out on top.”

There’s an old expression that “laughter is the best medicine.” Now we know that positive actions and emotions aren’t just good for you alone, but can be a prescription for helping others, too. A staggering array of behaviors spread through social networks, and the relatively new fields of social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology are helping us understand how this works. 

Maybe, as one commenter wrote, you want to “bring a sense of openness and kindness to the working life.” Or maybe you want to do something to change "the current climate of meanness and separation from our common humanity.”

What behavior will you choose to spread? 

 

A look back, a look ahead

This was one of the most notable years in my life. I learned more, met more people around the world, and I am more optimistic about the future than ever. 

So in this last Working Out Loud post for 2016, I thought it was appropriate to reflect on what happened, and to share what I have in mind for 2017.

2016

My first post this year used a beautiful image of a horse breaking free from a carousel, and that turned out to be more apt than I could have imagined. After 30 years of working inside big companies, I had experiences I never thought I would have.

The scariest thing I did was giving a talk at a TEDx event. Part of the fear was about presenting, and part was about sharing my work and aspirations in such a venue. It made me think more deeply about what I was trying to accomplish.

A different kind of fear was leaving the (relative) stability of a big company and going out on my own. Ikigai, LLC is named after the Japanese word for “a reason to get up in the morning.” It's a good name, as my daily work feels more purposeful than ever. 

One of the most thrilling days of the year was in Stuttgart, Germany where the first-ever WOL conference was organized by an extraordinary team at Bosch. I will be forever grateful to that team and that company for all they have done.

The most learning continues to come from working with customers. (I love that word: “customers.”) As much as I enjoy researching and writing, the real learning comes from putting the ideas into practice. Yet it doesn’t feel like work. This video from a recent event at Daimler captures the positive energy, even joy, of working with people who care to make a difference.

Of course, most things did not go nearly this well. The majority of my experiments didn’t turn out the way I hoped, and I made some frustrating mistakes. But those failures shaped my thinking and my aspirations for next year.

2017

My mission is to improve how people relate to each other and the work they do. I aim to do that in a way that’s good for individuals as well as for the organizations they’re a part of. Because if we genuinely make work better, we can use the vast resources of organizations to serve this mission, and people can practice throughout their workday in a way that feels purposeful. Instead of fighting against the corporate machines, I intend to use the best parts of them to change things from the inside.

Here are a few things I’m working on that I think will help.

Customizing Working Out Loud Circles for organizations. I work with customers to tailor the guides specifically for them, incorporating their goals, their collaboration technologies, and real examples from within the organization. That makes it easier for people to practice at work, and helps WOL Circles integrate easily into existing programs for new joiners, leadership development, and more. 

Making the practice more accessible & scalable. I’m developing a set of online coaching resources that will give Circle members help whenever and wherever they need it. That’s an efficient way for organizations to ensure Circles are effective for their people. It will also be a way for individuals to experiment with Circles by themselves, even if they’re not yet ready to join a peer support group.

Publishing a detailed case study. There are many great stories of people using Working Out Loud Circles to change their habits and their mindset. A detailed case study of an organization that includes data on improvements to collaboration and engagement will help accelerate the spread of the practice. 

In addition to these new things, I’ll also keep working on improving the practice. That will include a new edition of the book and upgrades to the free, public Circle Guides. I also intend to publish a set of Advanced Guides. These will help people who have already been through a WOL Circle to deepen their practice even further.

One other small shift

One other small change I’ll make is to this blog. Some of you know I write on johnstepper.com every Saturday, something I started doing well before I was thinking of Working Out Loud. Going forward, I’ll merge the two blogs here. Wednesday posts will be related to organizations, and Saturdays will be for individuals. (That’s my plan at least, or perhaps “aspiration” is again a better word.)

Thank you all for your attention, your support, and your ideas. Wherever you wish to go next with your career & life, I hope you take a step this coming year, and that Working Out Loud can help you in some way.

The engineer who Works Out Loud

Vincent has been working in a big German company for more than a decade, mostly in a manufacturing plant and now in a quality management role. Our first interaction was when he sent me a message on LinkedIn, telling me he was enjoying the book.

Later, he joined a Working Out Loud Circle, and he wrote me again to say he “can already see some improvements.” I thanked him, replied with some questions, and that led to an ongoing exchange. With his permission, I wanted to share some of his answers below.

As you read them, notice how his original goal is quite simple: he wants to use some of the new collaboration tools at work. Yet as he takes steps towards his goal - practicing making contributions and deepening relationships at work - he sees how he can apply his new habits and mindset to other goals. 

His last sentence is full of hope and possibility - and confidence. 

Why did you join a WOL Circle? 

I joined because I wanted to learn and improve myself as a professional and a person. I learned about it and as I was disconnected from social media (latecomer for many good and bad reasons) I thought in the first place that it could help me to reconnect (Which it did!).  

What was your goal in your circle? 

My goal is: 'I want to set up a personal blog, which enables me to share my work with others, to give back to communities that will enable me to connect with people I don't know yet.’

What did you expect to get out of it? 

I was expecting to deepen my social media understanding and how to use it in a professional setting. Also to have my own blog to share work and ideas that comes up.  I started a personal blog on our internal company social network. At first, I thought about sharing only technical content I created to help others improve quicker and avoid the traps I've been in. Some other ideas are starting to come up…It’s interesting to see how it develops, how ideas pop up all alone.  

I also created connections I didn't have…and reconnected with people. So it's great, because I start to have a solid experience with social media, where I was feeling lost before, didn't know what to do with it and how to behave. 

How does this apply at work? How might it help you be a better engineer?

I'm in a department of quality experts, mostly much older. An official target of this job is to improve the processes, challenge them, and introduce social media for collaboration with the other departments. 

That's where WOL kicks in. I will have to set communities and improve the collaboration between QM and the plants that applies the standards defined by the department. We also need to speak about the standards within our division, post them in our blog, and collaborate with other divisions with the same specialties. I think of promoting it to the Deployment of Business Excellence team in our division. It would be a fantastic complement to introduce social media for the managers. Also to promote WOL for team initiatives inside my department.  

I personally consider that when you share your knowledge, your work with others, in the end you are helping others with your work, then becoming more sure of your knowledge. It allows you to take a step back and improve your practice. It will allow me to participate, confront my ideas with others, and then create a 'virtuous circle' of questioning myself. Keeps me humble, feet on the ground, then more open minded. I really think that networking and sharing makes you a better 1. Person, 2. Professional. 

What might you do differently in the future? Asked another way...what changed for you or about you? 

I came from this restricted vision to something broader. For example, I post other things than my work. I post thoughts, advice, experiences. On a personal aspect, I'm less worried to post my thinking publicly, to praise the work of others, to create contacts and invite these people in my network when I feel I know them. A clear enabler to the improvement of my network through social media and 'gift' sharing.  

In the future? I'll extend this to my utilization of social media out of my company. I will try to become a circle moderator, as I think I can handle it. Also, I'll surely join other circles, but perhaps with goals more connected to my personal (selfish?) aspirations. That changed for me, I have personal wills that are sleeping, time will come when I'll need to wake them.  

What’s the best kind of network?

Ronald Burt, a sociologist and professor at the Chicago Booth School of Business, showed how people with better networks receive higher performance ratings, get promoted faster, and earn more money. So what constitutes a better network?

Social Network Analysis Graph

Social Network Analysis Graph

It’s a small world

Over the last century, mathematicians have become increasingly interested in studying different kinds of networks, trying to come up with models that emulate our experiences with networks in the real world, including social networks. The model would have to explain how, for example, most people have a relatively small set of connections, yet in study after study there seems to be only six or so degrees of separation between any two people. How and why is that possible?

In 1998 Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz came up with an explanation. In a short, dense paper titled “Collective Dynamics of ‘Small-World’ Networks,” they showed how a certain kind of network would be effective at transmitting messages while also emulating our experience in real life. Underlying the rigorous mathematics, a small-world network has two simple characteristics. The first is that such a network includes small clusters that are densely connected. Think of a group of five people where everyone is connected to everyone else. The second characteristic of small-world networks is that larger groups are sparsely connected. Think of two clusters, for example, with only one person in common.

Researchers have discovered small-world network properties in real-world phenomena ranging from electric power grids to neural networks to social networks. Why? It seems all kinds of systems are trying to optimize the efficiency of different networks, balancing the benefits of being connected with the costs of maintaining those connections. Naturally, it seems, healthy networks are comprised of a small close-knit circle that is loosely connected to other close-knit circles.

Strong and weak ties in your network

In 1973 Mark Granovetter analyzed the flow of information through social networks, and “The Strength of Weak Ties” went on to become the most cited paper in all of social science. The title was based on his assertion that people to whom we are weakly tied have different information than we normally receive because they move in different circles than our close ties. That information can be critical to us, and the example he used was finding jobs.

He cited a range of studies showing that people find out about jobs through personal contacts more than any other method. Then he conducted a study of his own and found that information that led to people finding new jobs came via people they barely knew or via the contacts of those people. Though close friends and family might be more motivated to help you find a job, being able to access different information from weak ties was much more important.

More than thirty years before Facebook was launched, Granovetter showed that having a larger, more diverse social network would improve your luck, increasing your knowledge about a broader set of possibilities and enhancing your ability to access them.

Building your own better network

The results of these two studies can help you understand what a better network might look like for you.

Networking isn't about amassing contacts or about being part of any one particular club. It’s about actively developing a diversity of relationships - diverse in the broadest sense of the word. You need a cluster of connections who trust you so you can exchange sensitive and valuable information. You also need people who are different from you—in geography, jobs, and interests—because they’ll have information and contacts that you and your strong ties don’t have.

For most people, access to opportunities is limited, based on the people they know and on luck. With purposeful development of a healthy network, you can make your own luck.