Are fun and play incompatible with work? I have worked for my share of managers whose behavior towards their subordinates certainly seemed to suggest these two things do not mix.  I have never believed that, however, and have experienced the reasons why.

A number of years ago, my job was to assume the Directorship of an organization whose employees had just experienced a prolonged bad patch.  Employees there were dispirited, angry, feeling unappreciated and disrespected, in no mood for an outsider like me to arrive with a basket of fixes, and I had a large volume of new substantive knowledge to acquire.  The negative energy in the atmosphere was almost palpable.  What  to do?

My first unplanned act — motivated by an instinct I still cannot  fully explain — was to send out a very short all-hands email that said something like this: “Hi, my name is Terry and this is my first day on the job.  I’m a little scared”.  I’m not sure what I expected next.  But what I got was quite a few responses of the following type: “relax, we know what we’re doing, we will help you”.

RELAX, I thought.  That’s the place to begin. We spend a great deal of our lives at work, why not have a little relaxation and playful fun while were at it?   So that became one of my major objectives: help the organization take a deep breath, relax a bit and have a little fun, all the while tackling the challenging problems we faced together.  I’m happy to say that by and large it worked.

Days before I departed for a new job a customer stopped me in the hall.  “Would you like some feedback” he said.  “Indeed” I replied.  He told me he had noticed a marked difference in our organization over the past few years.  “Everybody seems more at ease, positive, enjoying the work they are doing.  You’ve made a difference”.  “Thank you” I replied.  “You just made my day”

Grab your thesaurus and look up synonyms for fun.  There you will find concepts like enjoyment, amusement, play, lightheartedness, and pleasure.  Fun represents the playful behavior and an attitude that stimulates and produces these feelings within us.  Wild frivolity, a party atmosphere and a standup comedian are not required.  There is nothing inherently antithetical about having some fun at work, provided the bosses — especially at the very top — set the tone.

A good friend of mine once reminded me why work is so stressful,  First, work is timed; second, work is competitive; and third, it involves your ego.  There are always time pressures and deadlines, most of us hope to be at least as good if not better at out jobs than the next person, and it is difficult to feel good about ourselves if we feel inadequate at our chosen line of work.

A little play and relaxed fun are one of life’s great stress relievers.  It is hard to be uptight when we are laughing, smiling broadly, being playful, seeing the ridiculous in many things around us, and experiencing that sense of lightheartedness that a little playfulness can bring.

Relaxation and playfulness help us maintain perspective and mitigate the tendency many of us have to make mountains out of mole hills. Ever notice how a relaxing vacation, which usually contains quite a bit of play and fun, has a way of reducing the size and severity of those problems you left behind?

The one place I would never have expected to see a fun atmosphere was in a factory setting.  That was until many years ago I visited Saturn Motor Company’s facility in Springhill, Tennessee.  Blaring rock music greeted us as our group toured the factory, and smiling faces and waves were common among the car builders busily adhering to exacting engineering and safety standards in the automobiles they were building in teams.  Those we spoke with said it was the best working environment they had ever experienced; “a great place to work”.

And while I’m highlighting the benefits of a little playful fun at work, I will refer you to another article in this series entitled “Creating A High Performance Atmosphere at work”.  In this article, I highlight a terrific book by Gary Hamel entitled “The Future of Management”  in which Hamel focus a great deal of attention on the type of working environment most conducive to innovation and creativity.

It seems that innovation and creativity go hard to hand with what talented employees would call a fun place to work.  A sense of playfulness it appears is a prime catalyst for the innovative thinking creativity requires.  As Carl Jung pointed out:

. “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.”  (See creative quotes in Brainy quotes) 

So managers and leaders, what are you doing to make your working atmosphere a fun and enjoyable place to work?  What are you doing to unleash the creative talent around you?  Of course there are limits and the right times.  But I have always preferred to pull back on the reins occasionally, than hold them to tight.

Categories: Leadership, Managing & Leading, Managing People, Motivating Top Performance

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