Is It O.K. To Have Fun At Work?

Several years ago I was working with a client who was very harried. His department was always behind. Everyone was scrambling to keep up and looked like they hadn’t slept for a week. The manager pushed his people pretty hard and they were responding by working extra hours and extra hard. He had a beef with one of his team members (We’ll call him Steve). The manager said to me, “Steve just doesn’t have a sense of urgency.” I asked him several questions, “Is he not working as hard as the other team members? Is he not doing his share of the unpleasant tasks? Is he not being productive?” He responded, “Well, no but he doesn’t look worried.” It was true. While everyone else was frowning with their heads down, clothes rumpled, Steve strode down the hall with his head up, making pleasant conversation with his colleagues. He looked fresh. He had a tan. In fact, Steve was more productive than most of the other team members. He just didn’t look as stressed.

What did Steve know that the rest did not? There is increasing evidence that well-balanced, happy people are more productive. “Laughter on the job increases job performance! It’s true! Dr. David Abramis, at California State Long Beach, has studied fun at work for years. He’s discovered that people who have fun on the job are more creative, more productive, better decision-makers and get along better with co-workers. They also have fewer absentee, late and sick days than people who aren’t having fun.[1]

Southwest Airlines is famous for its informal, light-hearted style. Flight attendants crack jokes. Southwest employees work in teams, are active in charitable causes, attend board meetings and are actively involved in the company’s decision making. “Its success is due to its key values, developed by Kelleher (the CEO) and carried out daily by his 25,000 employees. These core values are humor, altruism, and luv.” [2] And the carrier has shown a profit for 37 years straight. An amazing statistic in these economic conditions in which most airlines are struggling to stay airborne!

Many other companies have jumped on the “fun” bandwagon. Some have taken the idea to extremes such as Google, Twitter, and Zappos. Their campuses are covered with dinosaurs, games, and yellow brick roads. Some have even appointed a “Chief Fun Officer” and hired “giggle consultants.” (Oh, please)! I do not believe that you have to wear funny hats or dress up like a clown to have fun. It does not make sense to me to try to “make” people have fun. You don’t want to turn your organization into an episode of “The Office.” Such efforts can backfire.

A few years ago, I was a part of a effort in a large corporation to implement a team process. We started in a small circuit board factory with 120 employees. Everyone was on a team. Each team did problem solving, created productivity measures, went through tons of training includingĀ leadership training, communicated regularly with management, and were extremely successful. Productivity soared! The teams felt good about their achievements and would occasionally schedule celebrations, which their managers wholeheartedly endorsed. Nothing was forced. Absenteeism was very low and people enjoyed coming to work.

Other divisions heard of our success and tried to copy it. But, they often did so by scheduling barbecues or ordering T-Shirts with catchy slogans, etc. After a while, people started to resent it and morale took a nosedive. You can’t make people have fun. The fun should come from the work itself and from being part of a successful team. If people believe that what they are doing is worthwhile, useful, challenging, and interesting, they will have fun.

freedom successful environment at workAs Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” No job, of course, is all fun. Every task has its challenges and its boring parts. But, overall, being part of something successful makes it fun. If, as a leader, you can create an environment in which people understand its purpose, are treated like human beings, have a reasonable amount of freedom, can count on one another, then the fun comes naturally. All you have to do is get out of the way.

How a Leader Can Create Fun at Work

There is much you can do as a leader to create this kind of environment.

  • Be clear about the needs of your business. What needs to happen in order to have a successful business. People like to be treated like adults so don’t mince words. Tell the truth.
  • Listen to what your people tell you. Learn to really listen so that you understand what they need.
  • Give them what they need. Nothing is more frustrating than to be given an assignment but not the resources to complete it properly.
  • Allow people the freedom to experiment, try new things, problem solve, and yes, have some fun.
  • Build teams. Organizations are made of relationships. Your job as a leader is to help your people build good relationships with one another. The better those relationships, the better the organization will work.
  • Good leadership training will help you understand your role more clearly and help you develop the skills you will need to develop those important relationships within the workforce. People are natural fun seekers. You don’t have to force it.

During the implementation of the team process I mentioned earlier, there were a couple of instances where I learned a thing or two. I admit that I did my share of “cheerleading” during the early phases of the process.

One time a team member came to me and said, “Isn’t it enough that I come to work and do my job. Do I have to like it too?” This man was starting to feel isolated. Everyone else seemed to be having such a good time but all he felt was pressure to conform. However successful the others felt, it was not fun for him. Another woman was skipping team meetings. After being confronted about her absences, we discovered that she was such a private person, that having to attend a meeting actually made her sick. Before every team meeting she would go to the bathroom and throw up. Her teammates were having fun but she was not. Everyone is different. Be sure to take that into account as you plan your “fun.”

Make it possible for people to opt out if they so choose. If you create an environment that makes sense for people and encourage them to enjoy it. The fun will come. It is O.K. to plan a few fun events but the most successful organizations allow it to flow naturally from its successes.

Even W. Edwards Deming, the famous American Consultant who helped rebuild Japan’s industry after World War II, chimes in on fun in the workplace. One of his well-known fourteen points is to have fun at work. Also a world-class curmudgeon, one story tells of Dr. Deming delivering one of his scathing lectures to a group of senior managers. After enduring the tongue-lashing for as long as he could, one of the managers timidly raised his hand and said, “Dr. Deming, one of your fourteen principles is to have fun at work. Quite frankly, right now I’m not having much fun.” To which Deming retorted, “Yeah, but I am.”

[1] Leigh, Edward. Making Work Fun.
[2] Having Fun at Southwest.

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