Positive Power Up: Leading for Happiness!

by Scott Crabtree

I wrote the following article for the September issue of the International Game Developers Association newsletter.  While it draws on my background as a game designer and developer, I strongly believe the points about positive leadership can apply to any organization.  I’d love to get your comments and feedback on it.

As a leader, would you say what my old boss said? “From now until the end of the project, we are going to be crunching. I expect everyone to be here 7 days a week, at least 12 hours a day. If you don’t like it, go find another job; there are plenty of people waiting to take your place.” These were the words from my boss’ mouth many years ago, when I was programming for a console title. Needless to say, I didn’t like it. I tried to persuade my boss that some extra hours were fine, but 7 days a week 12+ hours a day wasn’t going to be productive, but he quickly dismissed my concerns and told me to get to work.

I found my productivity dropping fast. I was “plenty” motivated to be productive. I wanted the project and the crunch time to end! But stewing in my anger toward the boss, I just couldn’t find and fix bugs at my usual rate. Neuroscience and psychology strongly suggest that the stress I was experiencing and the lack of insights to fix bugs were causally connected. Fundamentally, our brains are always in one of two modes: minimize risk, or maximize reward. When we feel tense or afraid, we head toward the flight or fight response, where our limbic system takes over. It essentially says to the rest of our brain “I’m in charge now. We are under threat and we have only 3 good options for survival: running away, fighting, or freezing.” Creative, insightful thinking doesn’t help us survive under immediate physical stress, so the limbic system dominates. The human cortex, responsible for creativity, insight, and much more, is relegated to the background. The fight or flight response is highly adaptive; it helps keeps us alive under immediate physical threat! The problem is, we can easily enter this more limited state of brain function when under emotional stress as well. In my stressed out crunching state, my brain doesn’t work as well at fixing problems.

A number of studies have found that when we are in a positive state of mind, we are more creative, energetic, productive, resilient, cooperative, sociable, and healthier. Happiness widens the scope of attention and increases behavioral repertoire. Anyone will make better games if they are happier!

What do I mean by ‘happy’? Scientists use the term “subjective well being”. ‘Subjective’ because a valid way of measuring someone’s happiness is to ask them how happy they are. “Well being,” indicates that scientists are studying more than what gives people positive emotions. When scientists study “subjective well being”, they also look at longer lasting elements such as life satisfaction, a feeling of long-term contentment and a sense of meaning.

As a leader, you can’t control the happiness of others, but you certainly have a strong influence over those you are leading. What can you do to help keep the brains you are managing in positive states where they will do their best work? Neuroscience and positive psychology have produced many actionable findings in recent years. Some of the most powerful include striving toward goals, maintaining a positive attitude, and nurturing relationships.

Striving Toward Important Goals

Most of us believe that achieving our goals will bring us great happiness. It does, but not as much happiness as we think and the good feelings don’t typically last as long as we think. A more sustainable source of happiness is making progress toward goals that are important to us. Setting goals with those you are leading, making sure the meaning of those goals is clear to your people, and then regularly tracking progress toward those goals will be both good for your game development and good for your team’s happiness. This will be especially true if a person’s goals align with their strengths.

Many large companies evaluate their leaders in part on how well they connect their people with larger strategies and goals. Science suggests there is good reason for paying attention to those skills. When an employee understands how the work he is doing contributes to a larger meaningful goal, he will derive more meaning from his own goals, and be more engaged in the pursuit of those goals. People perform better when the goals have a coherent explanation.  Co-create goals with each of your reports so that each person is using his strengths and contributing toward a larger goal that means something to them.

Positive Attitudes

It may sound cliché, but looking at the bright side does make us happier, and therefore more productive. This is especially critical in teams. In a remarkable study Frederickson, Losada, and Heaphy watched 60 teams do annual business planning. They evaluated the success of those teams as objectively as possible, using criteria such as revenue, profitability, and thorough “360 degree feedback”. The scientists did not participate in the planning meetings in any way. They did observe the planning, and simply noted several aspects of the sessions. Most relevant, they counted the number of positive and negative comments in the groups. The highest performing group had over 5 positive comments for every negative comment. The middle performing teams averaged about 2 positive comments for every negative one, and the lowest performing teams had more negative comments than positive ones. You may interpret this as pure correlation; the successful teams had positive things to say, they were filled with smart people. The scientists believe that there is a causal effect and I agree with them. Meetings with mostly positive comments make people feel safe, putting their brains in creative “maximize reward” state, where they do their best work.

When I lead my workshop titled The Science of Being Happy and Productive in Game Development and get to this data, I routinely ask if anyone has been in a meeting of more than 5 people in the past 5 months with a ratio of more than 5 positive comments for every negative comment. I occasionally get 1-2% of hands up. This indicates that most of us are missing our team’s best work, by tolerating mostly negative comments. At many companies where I’ve worked, people show how smart they are by criticizing other people’s mistakes. While pointing out errors may sometimes be necessary, failing to praise the positive produces a negative meeting environment that gets brains into “minimize risk” mode.

In addition to role-modeling positive interactions in meetings, as a leader you can specifically carve out time for them. This is especially useful at the beginning of a meeting, to set a positive tone and put brains into a positive state. For my own staff meetings, I consistently put ‘recognitions’ as the first agenda item. The first time I tried this it went over like a lead balloon. I said “OK team, I want to start each staff meeting with recognitions. This is simply a chance to say something appreciative about someone else on the team, typically because they’ve done something helpful to you in the past week. So, recognitions anyone?” Dead silence. This is when I explained to my team that science strongly shows that those who express gratitude experience an increase in their own happiness, and that happier people do better work. The next week again I asked for recognitions, and again got almost no response. However, after a few weeks, the team really started to get into it. I would ask for recognitions, and Steve would say that Julie really helped edit an article he was working on to improve the prose. Vipul thanked Sam for help debugging a tough problem, and Nolan recognized Greg for helping him brainstorm design ideas for the project he was starting. This kind of recognition gets everyone’s brains into more positive states, setting the tone for a more positive and productive meeting. It is also a great step toward building better relationships.

Nurturing Relationships

Maintaining good relationships with colleagues can be challenging. On top of the challenge of working with a diversity of personalities, typically colleagues in an organization are in competition with each other in some way. Conflict is a fact of work life at most companies. Game companies, with complex projects, deadlines, and all the stress of crunch time can strain even the strongest relationships.

However, the science is quite clear: positive relationships are extremely important for happiness. So taking time to meet regularly one-on-one with your people is time well invested. A few minutes of social chat at the beginning of such meetings is not a waste of time, but a valuable relationship builder. Taking time to celebrate wins, blow off steam, and just socialize is worthwhile. You may feel you don’t have the time for this, but indications are it will actually produce better results. Trust is often built on simply knowing each other as human beings, and trust is the foundation of good teamwork. We are social animals and need solid relationships to keep our brains positive and working best. Taking time to know each other personally will result in better relationships, which results in happier brains doing better work.

Back Around

The value of leading with positivity is clear, both for the well-being of your team, but also for the bottom line. Being a positive leader will increase your own happiness as well. Studies by Dr. James Fowler at UC San Diego suggest strongly that happiness—and unhappiness—are contagious. If we are dealing with happy people, we tend to be happy. So by putting forth some positive energy and working to lead your team toward happiness, you will ultimately be helping to produce your own happiness as well. As a result, you may be more creative, successful, and engaged at work. You will likely produce better games. You will even live longer as a result.

So remember to lead positivity whenever possible! Bring positive energy to your organization by helping your colleagues strive toward important goals, maintain positive attitudes, and nurture positive relationships.

Tip of the Iceberg

In a short article like this, I can only scratch the surface of the many valuable and actionable findings coming out of neuroscience and positive psychology. For more information including a recommended reading list, please visit HappyBrainScience.com or contact me using Scott <at> HappyBrainScience.com.

Scott Crabtree has been making video games for over 20 years, and is the founder of HappyBrainScience.com.  He is an expert on the application of neuroscience and the “science of happiness” to game developers and other business organizations.  Through workshops and individual coaching, he helps companies and individuals make the best use of their brains.  He has presented at GDC, the IGDA Leadership Forum, and numerous private companies.  He has written multiple articles for Gamasutra.com and served as technical editor for Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design. Scott has developed games with companies including Microsoft, Mattel, Disney, LEGO, and more for a variety of console, PC, and mobile platforms.  His most recent published game is Twist Tac Toads for iPhone.  He currently serves as the Tech Strategist for the Intel AppUp Developer Program. He can be contacted using Scott <at> HappyBrainScience.com.

Sources include Frederickson, Barbara, (multiple publications) and Losada, M. & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams: A nonlinear dynamics model. American Behavioral Scientist, 47 (6), pp. 740-765

Scott Crabtree

As the Founder and Chief Happiness Officer at Happy Brain Science, Scott Crabtree empowers individuals and organizations to apply findings from cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology to boost productivity and happiness at work.

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