But this is trickier than it sounds.
I've been on many a team in my business career that had no shortage of intensity. Every customer engagement mattered. Every share report was a potential trend in waiting (good or bad). Every competitive move required analysis and scenario planning. The team leader role-modeled intensity with piercing inquiries and sky-high standards.
Oh, and it was no fun.
On the other side of the equation, I've been on teams where fun and tomfoolery was commonplace. We laughed. We enjoyed. We celebrated. We appreciated.
Oh, and we lost (market share, customers, to competition).
Lots of laughs, but not enough intensity when it counted--not a solid core of super-competitiveness.
The ideal lies somewhere in the middle, with leaders and teams that create an atmosphere of what I call "relaxed intensity."
What is relaxed intensity?
The term means having a very intentional balance of the seriousness and commitment it takes to win with the camaraderie and fun it takes to win on a sustained basis.
Nothing but intensity 24/7 will burn out your team. Period. Now, you don't abandon your intensity as a leader, it's still very much there. You express it more thoughtfully, blending it with empathy, emotional intelligence, and joy.
When I was doing interviews for my first book, Make It Matter, I found an interesting pattern among many of the very best leaders who enjoyed sustained success. Their employees described (in a variety of ways) the atmosphere of relaxed intensity that their leader created.
Linda Kaplan Thaler, at the time the chair of Publicis Kaplan Thaler ad agency and an icon in the industry, was described by an employee as having a compelling mix of being "the fiercest competitor you'll ever meet" yet the first to open a meeting with a joke or funny story.
Nancy Kramer, founder and chairman of Resource Interactive and named one of the 100 most influential women in advertising history by Ad Age, is known for creating an atmosphere of relaxed intensity. When I told Kramer this she said, "The intensity comes from my push to bring out the genius in everyone and the relaxed describes the fact that I do so with a smile and a twinkle in the eye."
Julien Mininberg, CEO of Helen of Troy, former CEO of Kaz, (and one of my very first bosses) is known for being passionate about taking time to laugh while being just as passionate about trying to make competitors cry.
Why does fostering relaxed intensity matter?
Everyone wants to win. No one doubts the importance of intensity in so doing. But it's not as clear why the "relaxed" part should be in the mix for peak performance.
Before you dismiss the relaxed and fun aspect as being "touchy-feely," know that research is clear on its importance.
Having fun and laughing at work can change attitudes, draw people closer together, and step-change engagement levels. Using humor eases tension, helps you sell, and gets creativity flowing.
Dr. David Abramis at Cal State Long Beach has extensively studied the field of workplace fun. He's found that people who have fun on the job are not only more creative, they are more productive, better decision makers, and get along better with co-workers as well. They also have fewer absentee, late, and sick days than people who state they aren't having fun.
The bottom line is that the blend of intensity and fun can't be underestimated for its effectiveness.
Working in an atmosphere of relaxed intensity enhances the feeling that you're part of something special; that you're part of a united, winning team with a sense of purpose grounded in business and in life. Fierce, externally focused competitiveness nets a greater sense of mission, while shared levity yields a greater sense of camaraderie and belongingness. This combination helps employees better connect with leadership and each other.
So leaders, while you're pushing hard and heavy with your team for great results, lighten up.