I’m strangely drawn to the concept of constructive mischief in business management. I’m going to use the next 900 words (ish) to explain why I’m tantalised by the importance of this self-perpetuated piece of leadership-speak, and why I think it’s a really compelling trait for great business leaders.
What is constructive mischief?
The word mischief has layered meaning. Face value tells us it’s a negative word. Misbehaviour, misconduct, naughtiness. But at the same time it has an undercurrent of roguish playfulness that seems warm and engaging. I wouldn’t want to spend time with a bad person, but a mischievous person…that person seems exciting and compelling.
Constructive on the other hand is a universally good word. Solid, positive, well-intended. It’s also very dull. Constructive in business parlance is normally an adjective that massages a noun with negative connotations, like criticism or even feedback.
Constructive Mischief then can be described as ‘positive misbehaviour’, or put another way a little bit of roguish conduct that is ultimately well-meaning and done to deliver something positive, be that a feeling or a relationship.
Our lives are full of constructive mischief. It allows us to laugh at difficult or maybe even dangerous situations. To bring humour to tough times, to distract ourselves from nerves or just to build rapport with somebody else. Some people are better at finding or creating life’s mischief, others like to sit back and absorb the mischief made by others. But we all need a little constructive mischief in our lives.
Flip this to a work environment, with its more structured and prosaic set of social norms, and our natural proclivity for constructive mischief is immediately suppressed. Well it normally is anyway. But crucially it isn’t suppressed in the same way for everyone.
This is why an ability to create constructive mischief in the workplace that helps to positively impact a work environment is a potent and intoxicating ingredient for good business leadership.
What does constructive mischief demonstrate in leaders?
Individuals who exhibit the bravery and intelligence to surround themselves with constructive mischief are often the people we gravitate to as leaders.
They are the people that see excitement in challenging the status quo. They are the people that are often ready with a provocative question, a daring statement, or even a strategically issued quip. Sometimes these things may seem annoying, unnecessary, or feel as though they are done “just for the sake of it”. But this element of playful misbehaviour, delivered thoughtfully, often subconsciously evokes healthy traits of innovative free-thinking within organisations.
A desire to embrace constructive mischief, to revel in a certain amount of absurdity, is one mark (although definitely not the only one) that demonstrates a willingness to confront change and drive transformation. There’s even some psychology science behind this. Joseph Schumpeter called constructive mischief making “creative destruction”.
Constructive mischief comes in many forms, and isn’t just about being prepared to annoy colleagues, peers and managers with annoying behaviour! So what is constructive mischief?
It’s the bravery to force through a change you know to be important and valuable even though some people won’t like it…and relishing the thrill of the achievement
It’s about changing that process that’s been done the same way, over and over again for 10 years straight, even though you know it will be short-term chaos for long-term improvement
It’s about breaking a rule when you know the rule is preventing success
Actually, it’s about breaking a rule that you know shouldn’t be a rule at all
It’s laughing at the absurdity of bureaucracy, and getting others to laugh too
Bringing colleagues into random conversations, making noise, hiding the boss’ favourite pen
Challenging the status quo and being proud about it
It’s mischief…you get the idea! But above all, it’s about creating an infectious sense of fun, empowerment and dynamic thinking that is energising and attractive in the workplace.
Why is constructive mischief important for great leadership
The fact that humans are drawn to confidence has been well-documented by the psychology community. Yet I have a big problem with this notion of charisma/confidence and its place in business leadership. What does it mean? Lighting up a room with a smile, asking direct questions, being ‘chatty’, public speaking, being a good listener. It strikes me that many traits we ascribe to confidence, particularly in the workplace, can be just as easily explained by a person lacking social conscience, unaware or unable to grasp the consequences of actions, or just not caring about outcomes as much as others. In other words not caring about the outcome isn’t the same as being confident.
A willingness to embrace – or even better create – constructive mischief is the tangible side of this nebulous idea that people just ‘gravitate’ to great leaders. Great leadership is the sum of many parts. But one important part is the ability to deliberately create this mischievous air of disruption, fun and provocation that people find highly intoxicating.
Mischief is also tightly associated with curiosity.
We are normally curious when we are questioning something, and curiosity is a great breeding ground for iterative change and progress – essential in successful work environments.
The best leaders are able to use constructive mischief to create progressive organisations, to motivate, to relax and to drive transformational thinking.
Mischief is an exercise in balance
Having extolled the virtues of constructive mischief for great leadership, here comes the health warning. We’re all wired differently, with infinitely complex personalities. Some of us are naturally more mischievous than others (some of us are downright bad but that’s a different article).
If we all go away from this striving to be more constructively mischievous to improve our leadership qualities, some of us will do great, and some of us will get it so wrong we’re liable to end up fired or worse. Constructive mischief comes with important requirements…balance and perspective.
When people reel off the traits of great leaders words like stability, judgement, prudence and responsibility will always rank above “oh, she was brilliant at constructive mischief”. Successful mischief making can’t be at the expense of the holy trinity of workplace survival:
- good sense
- good taste
- good manners
For those of us not innately wired for constructive mischief it might take planning to inject these traits into your leadership style, particularly at first. Over time it will become a more intrinsic quality, and the line between constructive mischief and destructive trouble-making will be easier to find.
If you want to emulate the great business leaders, or you just want to feel a bit more fun and dynamic at work…then why not release that inner mischief. Just make sure it’s constructive.