We all know fear has a solid evolutionary purpose. It has kept our species alive for many years. Fear is useful. Fear can be a great ally.

In the past we would feel fear while on a hunt or defending our family from a tiger. This fear would be episodic. The threat of tiger attacks has gone way down in the past 10,000 years. Today our fear is not episodic, it’s ever-present. We no longer suffer from bursts of fear. Instead we suffer from the effects of chronic fear—aka chronic stress.

The Unused Secret Weapon

Joy, on the other hand, has no evolutionary purpose. Yet it can be very helpful. New research shows that joy and amusement and contentment can lead to thinking a larger and wider array of thoughts. These states of being and emotions make us more creative.

joyful people picThis is biological. Barbara Fredrickson’s research indicates that joy stimulates the release of a flood of chemicals to the brain including dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals dial in the learning center in our brain by increasing and sustaining the number of neural connections. The result is we take in new information faster and retain it longer.

Other research shows how our mood changes the way our visual cortex processes information. Joy expands our peripheral vision. One recent study showed that doctors who were in a good mood were able to make much more accurate diagnoses than those who were neutral or negative.

The coach of the US Women’s Gymnastics team who lost in the finals in the summer of 2012—a team whose performance fell apart under pressure—said he regretted what he told his team in the locker room before the competition. He said, “You guys have a real shot at this.” This caused fear and interfered with their performance. In hindsight, he wished he said, “Just have fun.”

It’s no wonder that Google has foosball tables, free on-campus dining, and that it allows employees to bring their dogs to work. This seems to make good business sense when you want to attract, inspire and retain employees.

Good business is what’s behind Richard Branson’s statement that “fun is the secret to Virgin Air’s success.” Or Patagonia’s mantra “Let my people go…surfing.”

Are You Ready to Make a Change?

Most business leaders live in denial about how much they use fear to get people to change behavior. Fear about job security, career limitation, being publically embarrassed or privately scolded are big motivators. Fear kicks our reptilian or base brain into action, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. But overused, these chemicals create side-effects that result in diminishing marginal returns, health issues, and cloudy thinking.

The big opportunity for most leaders is to inventory how fear is used as a management tool and replace it with feedback that mixes blessing with criticism and with behavior that engenders joy.

Here is a practical ritual you can do to engender joy and a positive, non-fear-based mood in your shop. At your weekly team meeting do what Chip Conley, CEO of Joie de Vivre Hotels and YPO member does. Allow someone to talk for one minute about a person in the company that deserves recognition. This simple ritual could change your entire corporate culture.

What if you could transform your team or organization from a group of scared people to a group of joyful people? I wonder how much more work would get done.