Even though the 2012 Summer Olympics are over, I have been thinking about those athletes who dazzled us over the course of 17 days. Many performances literally took my breath away. There were times that I shouted and cheered athletes to victory from my living room with only my two cats in attendance. Like millions and millions of people around the world, I was mesmerized and in awe.

A debate

And, of course, what was happening with the Olympics dominated many of my conversations with friends, clients, strangers with whom I might have only a brief and passing exchange, and colleagues at work. In one of my conversations, I commented on the enormous smile of Gabby Douglas. The other person quickly responded that I would be smiling like that too if I had just won a gold medal in the Olympics. This comment prompted an interesting inquiry:  Were the Olympic Gold Medal Winners smiling because they were so happy that they had just won a gold medal or is smiling, and what leads to that characteristic, a contributing factor to them being a Gold Medal Winner?

Scientific Data on Smiling

There is research that suggests that smiling or frowning absolutely has an impact on performance. Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, introduced me to Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision-making. Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, offers evidence that our facial expressions influence our performance even when we do not actually feel the emotion.

The neuroscience of this phenomenon

Kahneman describes that the brain has two parallel systems:  The Fast and The Slow. The Fast System is intuitive and instinctive. It deals with simple decisions swiftly.  The Slow System deals with calculating and rational activities, which are complicated and require additional effort. The systems are activated by, among other factors, facial expressions.

Kahneman and fellow researchers did experiments in which they instructed participants to create smiling and frowning expressions. In each case, behavior was influenced by the facial expressions. When people were smiling, they had swifter behaviors and acted more intuitively. When they were frowning, they behaved more rationally and deliberately.

Smiling and Winning Gold

At the Olympic level of competition, athletes must be intuitive and fast. They cannot afford to have to think and deliberate on their next action. Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Mo Farah are all multiple Gold Medal Winners whom I watched and whose huge smiles struck me as they flashed repeatedly. Applying Kahneman’s research, my opinion is that their smiling did contribute to their speed and ultimately to their winning.

So how can we apply this in business?

Business is all about performance. And wouldn’t we all like to have increased speed and agility in how work is delivered? Perhaps we can apply what Kahneman identified and try increasing our own and others’ smiling.

Remember, you do not actually have to feel the emotion.

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