Career & Jobs

Maturity and Joy: the Neuroscience of Effective Leaders 

Our country is experiencing a maturity crisis. A rampant lack of emotional and relational maturity is having a devastating impact on culture, families, and the workplace.

In a Harvard Business Review article simply titled “We Need More Mature Leaders,” Richard Davis wrote, “At a time when we need solid, grounded leadership more than ever, we seem to be in short supply of adults who act like, well, adults.”

Davis wrote the article in 2011. Things don’t seem to have gotten any better.


Maturity can be defined as “suffering well.” Mature people are able to remain relational and act like themselves under stress. Immature people fall apart, blow up, or shut down under stress. Others switch in and out of “enemy mode,” relational and engaging one minute and predatory the next.

Building and sustaining joy is one of the key components of maturity. The powerful and sustained motivation produced by joy is a lesson we have learned from the latest neuroscience. The brain runs best on the high-octane fuel of joy. No one complains that they have too much joy. No one goes to therapy for overdosing on joy. Our problems — especially our relational problems — come when there is an absence of joy. Low-joy work environments suck the life out of everyone and inevitably become toxic.

As leaders, our No. 1 priority is to create a healthy culture that routinely creates trust, joy, and engagement in the people we lead. Far too often, instead of building healthy cultures grounded in relational joy, we grow toxic cultures grounded in relational fear. When the brain does not get enough joy, it inevitably runs on fear. Some leaders know this and just don’t care.

Threat-based leaders are fine with employee turnover, constant friction, office politics, and smoking piles of emotional garbage as long as they are making money and meeting deadlines. Mature leaders know that, in the end, healthy work cultures create and sustain numbers. Motivating with fear creates burnout and sabotages long-term success. We may see short-term spikes in productivity, but we will not build sustainable businesses without joy.

Defining Joy

Building a joy-based culture doesn’t mean the people on our team are happy all the time. Joy means that there is relational trust and anticipation. We like working with the team and come to think of them as “our people.” We are energized by the team because we enjoy working together. Immature people suck the joy out of the workplace.

From the perspective of neuroscience, joy is always relational. It is the feeling we get when someone is happy to be with us. It puts a light in our eyes and a smile on our faces, creating positive energy in our bodies. Joy sets us free to act like ourselves. It generates creativity, improves focus, and leads to collaboration. For leaders who want to see their teams go to the next level of efficiency, productivity, and engagement, there is no substitute for joy.

Two Workplace Stories

A friend of ours runs a nursing unit at a major East Coast hospital. He seized on this idea of creating a healthy culture where people love to work.

Some simple training helped nurses in our friend’s unit raise joy levels in the workplace. The rules were simple. Before starting tasks, nurses had to take the time to do three things: look people in the eyes, show some authentic curiosity, and smile. These small changes (and others that followed) created a dramatic culture shift. Within three months, patient approval ratings had gone up 33 percent. Doctors visited the unit more often, maintenance people were quick to make repairs, and other nurses started asking to be transferred to this area. Our friend shared with us the report he was filing with the hospital administrators to try to make these practices standard practice for the entire organization.

In stark contrast to building joy, another nursing unit at the same hospital took the opposite approach, focusing on accountability rather than increasing joy. The head of the unit introduced new standards that were to be enforced vigorously in an attempt to “force” better performance from the nurses. Morale in the fear-based unit plummeted, and performance did not improve. The contrasting outcomes of motivating people with joy and motivating them with fear turned out just as brain science predicted.

Joy and Maturity Are Inseparable

If there is a secret to growing maturity, it is learning how to return to relational joy from all of the big emotions that overwhelm us (sometimes on a daily basis). Effective leaders return to relational joy quickly from their own negative emotions. Resilient leaders quickly recognize when their teams are sliding into negativity and need the fresh energy that only joy can bring.

One small business owner we know in the Portland area runs a sales management and real estate company with more than 20 employees. After being introduced to our material, he decided to put the neuroscience of joy and maturity into practice to see if it made a difference.

For several months, this business owner taught his team the principles and practices of handling hardship well. Slogans like “Remain relational,” “Act like yourself,” “Return to joy,” and “Keep relationships bigger than problems” were placed on signs around the office.

One day, the business owner was on a phone call and started to have a meltdown. From down the hall, an employee called out, “It sounds like someone needs to return to joy!” The owner stopped and laughed. This employee had started out with one of the worst attitudes in the office, and now, they were reminding the boss about the core values they had just adopted. It was a good day for the business owner because it meant the new company culture was taking root. He was so pleased with the results he organized an area-wide event and invited us to share these principles with other workplace leaders he knew.

Greater maturity leads to greater joy in the workplace. Greater joy leads to greater trust, engagement, and productivity. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Dr. Marcus Warner and Dr. Jim Wilder are the coauthors of Rare Leadership in the Workplace: 4 Uncommon Habits that Improve Focus, Engagement, and Productivity.

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