“[Y]ou get what you celebrate in a free culture,” Dean Kamen (attrib. 2009).
“…intelligent failures, as the term implies, must be celebrated so as to encourage more of them” (Edmonson 2019).
“…frustrations can be vented; accomplishments and people spontaneously celebrated. In these moments, more is at play than simple information exchange” (Laloux, 2014).
In much of the literature on organizational culture, the advice is to “celebrate” this or that. The term is used as its meaning suggests: to acknowledge or affirm through some shared event. Acknowledgement and affirmation require generosity. In the academy, the term has been mostly used adjectivally: “She is a celebrated biologist;” or “Her celebrated work on X explores…” Here, however, celebrations are active and verbal. The important thing here are the three aspects that are happening at the same time in any real celebration.
“You need to not only understand your values, but celebrate them…” (Bacon, 2009).
Celebrations in your workspace entail three important aspects:
1. There is a shared social activity. This activity is meant to honor or recognize the value of something/someone. Everyone can participate as they wish. Time and resources may be spent to hold these events. Regular and irregular events break the routine of the workplace. Within the event any number of values and accomplishments can be mentioned, or the event can itself celebrate the value of being a community. Alternately, celebrations may be as simple as someone making a positive comment about someone or some activity, and everyone else nodding and smiling. Occasions where time and resources are spent are investments by the organization to its employee community.
2. This social activity requires a shared positive emotional tone from all who participate. You do not need to be the most enthusiastic person in the room, but you are expected to actually want to celebrate. Lending your sincere emotional support to the activity is a gift you give to the community. This shared emotional space also opens up the social frame for interpersonal conversations that can build trust, and improve teamwork. Even most introverts can find something to smile about.
3. This activity is meant to be shared within a community. Going out dancing alone in a night club may be your way of “celebrating life,” but here you really belong. You are meant to be here with all these other people. And that belonging is also shared. In fact, these occasions for celebrating are times when “inclusion” ups its game to signal actual belonging. This part of celebrate requires that you’ve spent some time creating community in your workplace. This usually means that you also share “community” as a value. Every time you celebrate something/someone you are also celebrating your community.
Celebrations demonstrate generosity
Celebrating starts with a clear intention: generosity. Lacking this, no event can be called a celebration, even though it may look like one (balloons, songs, whatever). Celebrations are good barometers for the health of your institutional culture. On any one day, you might not be feeling generous. That is fine, you can still participate. You may have had the painful experience of an office party where nobody is feeling generous; where everyone knows that the event is for show only; and where there is no shift in the shared emotional mood that would allow for free conversation. In a culture turned toxic, you can no longer actually celebrate; genuine generosity will seem out of place and time.
When celebrations fail, it’s time to reexamine your culture. This means that celebrating your values (and each other) is also a litmus test on how well your governance is working to help you build a community — another reason to celebrate regularly. Putting up your values on a sign by the front door is not the same as celebrating these. This goes for your academic department or lab as much as it does for a Silicon Valley start-up.
Bacon, Jono. The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation. Sebastapol: OʼReilly. 2009 Available At: <http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/downloads/jonobacon-theartofcommunity-1ed.pdf>.
Edmondson, Amy C. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2019.
Laloux, Frederic. Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the next Stage in Human Consciousness. Nelson Parker, 2014.