Vocational Energy, or, something more than just putting in the hours

Which side of the brain do you use?

Wisely, Liz Sands decided not to tell her colleagues where they were going that day. As office manager at an enterprise agency in Bristol, Sands had organised an away-day for the whole team. And she suspected that people might call in sick if she told them that she’d booked everyone in at a laughter club.

Arriving with no preconceptions, they were invited to carry out a few exercises. Joe Hoare, the facilitator, asked first for members of the group to give him a deep belly laugh. Then a high-pitched, tinkling giggle.

Overcoming their embarrassment, the group managed to do as he asked. And after a while, they began to laugh spontaneously. “The point was to get people feeling more positive,” Sands recalled. “It was good fun, and it got everyone loosened up.”

Hoare ran his first laughter club nearly eight years ago. He holds a monthly session that’s open to the general public, but he also works with blue-chip companies. “It’s good for teamwork,” he said. “When people share this kind of experience, there’s a strong bond.”

Laughter clubs were invented by Madan Kataria, a doctor in Mumbai, India, who holds daily sessions in parks and shopping centres. Today, there are more than 2,500 laughter clubs around the world. And the fastest-growing venue for them is the workplace, according to Daniel H Pink, author of the latest must-read management book, A Whole New Mind.

Published in the autumn, with jacket quotes from several of the best-known management gurus, Pink’s book has rapidly become a word-of-mouth success. In the US, it’s gone into its eighth print run.

Pink believes that the “knowledge workers” who set the character, leadership and social profile of society – the lawyers, accountants, investment bankers, engineers, management consultants and doctors – will soon be wiped out by the forces that devastated industrial and blue-collar jobs before them.

It’s a doomy prognosis, but he offers some hope. These professionals have thrived for years because they’re analytical and logical – qualities that play out in the left-side of the brain. They’ve tuned out their right-brain qualities such as emotion and creativity. Now, if they’re to survive, they must harness both sides of the brain. Hence the title of his book.

The left-side of the brain is sequential, the right-side simultaneous. The left analyses details, the right puts together a bigger picture. Thus, the left side processes text or speech, while the right handles more complex, multi-faceted tasks such as interpreting somebody’s facial expression and intonation. The left tells you what has been said, the right tells you how it’s been said.

“The first people who develop a whole mind will do extremely well,” says Pink. “The rest, who move slowly or not at all, will suffer.”

Is he overstating it? Computers long ago beat Gary Kasparov at chess, the quintessential left-brain activity. It’s hard to believe that the day-to-day tasks of lawyers – to name just one of the threatened professions – are really more complex than chess at the level of grand master.

Indeed they’re not. “Lawyers may feel that they are through the revolution already, but there is much more to come,” says Richard Susskind, a consultant on IT to international law firms and to the Lord Chief Justice. “Advanced systems will enable a shift from bespoke advice to commoditised legal service.”

As for the threat from overseas: Catrin Griffiths, editor of The Lawyer, says Indian regulations currently prevent British lawyers setting up offices there. That’s likely to change. “And when that happens, it will be a real honeypot,” she says.

It would be hard for Pink, a highly regarded business writer, to have missed these trends. But what he noticed at the same time was that left-brainers in the leading economies have already started to protect themselves against the threat from computers – and predatory Indians, among others – by cultivating their previously neglected aptitudes for creativity and emotional intelligence.

He lists six areas – design, storytelling, seeing the bigger picture, empathising, play, and meaningful purpose. But before examining them in detail, can we be sure that the British workforce really is so perilously analytical? Sebastian Bailey, a London-based psychologist and co-author of the bestselling The Mind Gym: Wake Up Your Mind, believes it may be.

One of the most popular personality tests used in job applications, the Myers-Briggs, divides people into analytical and more intuitive types. “The first group,” said Bailey, “if you asked them to talk about an apple, would give you facts. They’d say, it’s green, it grows on trees…” The second group would talk about other things, like the environment, or the Greek legend about awarding an apple to the most beautiful goddess …” Really high quality thinkers, he added, switch routinely between the two ways of thinking.

More than two million people have taken the Myers-Briggs test, and the aggregated data shows that, in Britain and America, analytical types substantially outnumber the others. “In an economy like ours,” said Bailey, “we need to move towards the intuitive qualities. And you can do that. It can be a strain, but it’s good for you.”

So let’s consider Pink’s list. Design is important because consumers appreciate it more than ever. Anybody who uses a word-processor can tell the difference between Times New Roman and Arial, whereas twenty years ago, typefaces were a mystery to all but a few. So it’s no longer enough to provide something efficient. It must be beautiful too. Implicitly acknowledging this, the Treasury invited Sir George Cox, chairman of the Design Council, to examine options for making British business more creative. His report was delivered with some fanfare in December.

Computers and the internet have made facts cheap. Anybody can find them, but who can make sense of them? Pink’s answer: storytellers.

Robert McKee, the script guru worshipped by Hollywood wannabes, has recently started to attract a following among people who don’t work in film. Many belong to the growing movement of “organisational storytellers” – quite possibly including the artist in residence at Yorkshire Water, poet in residence at Barnsley Football Club, comic-book artists employed by Unilever, and a “corporate jester” at British Airways.

David Pearl, who has previously worked in opera and theatre directing, improvisation, film writing and TV presenting, uses that broad arts experience in his work with major companies all over Europe. “These skills have become essential for even the most hard-nosed businesses because increasingly a company’s value has less to do with material assets than the company’s ethos.

“Writing your values on a piece of paper won’t make them come to life. We use film-making techniques to help people construct stories that can be much more powerful. We also do rehearsals. Sportsmen, soldiers, scientists, musicians, dancers, actors, athletes spend far more time practising than in action. Businesses tend to have an idea and throw themselves into action without test flight, manoeuvres, or dry run. We use rehearsal techniques so that people can develop their options. We envisage difficult situations and play them through several times. That way, you create new possibilities.

“People come out of education, including MBA courses, with only some of their organs working, as it were. Their analytical skills are usually well developed, but intuition has often been dimmed after they made mistakes and backed away from doing that again. We encourage them to “fail beautifully”.

Companies that have used Pearl’s services include Egg, Ericsson, ING and BP. One client recently took 3,000 people to a castle in France for a long weekend.

“When I started,” he says, “what we did was seen a nice thing to do, a bit like origami. But this is not a gimmick, it’s not going away.”

Well, he would say that. But his clients agree. One, Sally Bonneywell of GlaxoSmithKline, says: “It takes a leap of faith, but the results are remarkable. When you put people together in a room and help them relax and get in touch with their intuitive side – and then give them a business strategy to work on – the quality of the work is much better.”

The third item on Pink’s list is seeing the bigger picture. A report in Business Week recently argued that top-level maths graduates have become “a new global elite”, earning vast fortunes. You might think that sounds strictly analytical and left-brained. But these individuals are not mere number crunchers. They’re visionaries. As work, play and shopping have moved online, they have worked out how to capture data and build vast businesses on it. Just look at Google.

Empathy, meanwhile, has become fundamental to medical training. Any computer can perform diagnosis – millions of patients do that themselves on the internet – and radiologists in Bangalore can read British patients’ X-rays. But only a doctor who’s right here can listen and deliver comfort. To stress the importance of empathy, some medical schools in the US send students under cover to spend time in hospital beds and see things from the patients’ perspective.

We’ve already heard about Pink’s fifth aptitude, playfulness. (Kataria, founder of the first laughter club, told him there should be a laughing room in every company.) But what about the last, meaningful purpose?

Roffey Park recently surveyed managers and found that 70 per cent wanted their working lives to be more meaningful. Martin Seligman, founder of the influential “Positive Psychology” movement and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, predicts that enjoying work will soon overtake material reward as the principal reason for working.

David Pearl has a term, vocational energy, which describes the extra effort individuals put into a job they really believe in. “You can be 100 per cent busy, but some people somehow still manage to find 30 per cent more. And that’s something companies want people to have – they want more than just putting in the hours. They need that hidden something, that esprit de corps.”

“This is also about leading a better life,” says Pink. “If you have a deeper sense of empathy and meaning then you are leading a fuller and richer life, and making the world a better place.”

Which sounds great, but the emphasis on creativity and emotional intelligence can be taken too far. It might lead us to overlook what has already become an urgent shortage of people with valuable analytical skills. Research released in January by the Department of Education and Skills released revealed that one in four maths teachers in England was not a specialist in the subject.

What’s more, a psychologist who specialises in providing psychometric tests to a vast range of companies across the country, cautions that many individuals simply won’t be able to adapt. “There are always going to be people capable of high levels of reasoning and thought, and others who aren’t,” says this man, who prefers not to be named. The same goes for the right-brain abilities, he says. “Some horses will never be capable of winning the Derby, but they’re good at pulling carts.”

Lucy Kimbell, a designer and artist, was recently appointed to a fellowship at the Saïd Business School in Oxford – an appointment that itself tells you quite a lot about the hunger for creativity among business elites. She looks forward to engaging with MBA students, but she’s deeply sceptical about what she believes may be little more than a fad. “There is a national debate about this at the moment, and there is an economic imperative. But this is also, partly, just a fashion. And there will be another fashion in five years.”

Develop your right-brain
If you think you may be too analytical – and it seems that most of us are – you may want to try some of Daniel Pink’s tips for getting in touch with your creative and emotional right-brain.

Keep a design notebook. When you see good design, or bad design, make a note of it. Think about improving poorly designed items. Send your idea or sketch to the manufacturer.

Use your handwriting to create your own font. www.fontifier.com

Write a mini-saga: move readers to tears or laughter in just 50 words. Buy a tape recorder and ask friends’ to tell you their life stories.

The bigger picture
Take art lessons. In drawing, we learn to see the relationships between seemingly separate objects and ideas.
Develop a mastery of metaphor. Describing one aspect of the world in terms derived from another, we automatically find a bigger picture.

Buy magazines you noticed before. Pink figured out a better way to design my business cards thanks to something he saw in ‘Cake Decorating’ magazine.

Take an acting class. The instructors aren’t exactly Lee Strasberg, but you aren’t Al Pacino.
Volunteer at a homeless shelter to sharpen your empathic powers.

Find a laughter club, or set one up at work.
Borrow a Game Boy or PlayStation.

Meaningful purpose
Say thanks. Write a detailed “gratitude letter” to someone who’s been generous to you. Then visit the person and read the letter aloud.

Take the 20-10 test. Ask yourself whether you would still do your job if you had £20m in the bank, or knew you had just ten years to live.

Read the Sermon on the Mount, sections of the Torah, parts of the Koran, and The Art of Happiness at Work by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler MD.