What Great Bosses Know about Fun at Work

My favorite sound in the newsroom I once led and in the workshops I now teach? Laughter. Lots of it. I pity anyone whose boss believes fun begins only when the workday ends.

I admit I’m deeply biased here. I cherish my heirloom autographed copy of a Henny Youngman joke book. My husband and I were married by a priest who teaches a college course on the philosophy of humor. The primer for my first pregnancy was Dave Barry’s “Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How to Make a Tiny Person in Only 9 Months, with Tools You Probably Have around the Home.”

And of course, I’ve used videos from “The Office” in my leadership teaching.

But you don’t have to love comedy to understand the value of fun in the workplace. There are serious, sound business reasons for lightening up. The authors of “Executive EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership and Organizations” make the case quite well:

“Studies show that a quick infusion of lightheartedness does more than boost your energy. It encourages intuitive flow, makes you more helpful toward others, and significantly improves intelligence processes such as judgment, problem solving, and decision making when you are facing difficult challenges. It is a great aid to creative transformation.”

Ha! Laughter at work produces a return on investment! That’s why the authors of “Primal Leadership” conclude: “Small wonder that playfulness holds a prominent place in the tool kit of emotionally intelligent leaders.”

Ha again! Levity can enhance quality, productivity and even your reputation as a great boss. So how the heck do you produce it? With a genuine smile and these five tips:

You don’t mandate fun; you welcome and reward it so that it grows naturally.

Leaders clearly set the tone for a culture. Southwest Airlines is famous for frivolity. Its early leaders Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett (her informal title was “Chairman of Fun”) set the tone for their company: Treat employees and customers to a positive, upbeat experience at every opportunity. Encourage playfulness and spontaneity. Kelleher told the authors of “Lessons from the Top: The Search for America’s Best Business Leaders”:

“People have come to visit Southwest Airlines saying they want to establish a culture similar to ours. When we tell them all we’ve done is just treat people right, it’s too simplistic for them. They want something far more complex. They want a program. We always felt that making it ‘a program’ murders it.”

You don’t define fun; your employees do.

You can’t help but laugh at maladjusted manager Michael Scott’s efforts to force his skewed view of workplace happiness on his staff at Dunder Mifflin (“We’re all participating in mandatory fun activities. Funtivities!“) and their skill at working around him.

But there’s a serious lesson here for real-world bosses. When bosses script or schedule fun on their terms, it can be just another top-down assignment — and it can fail miserably. A cranky Weekly Standard article on off-site team-building activities described some as “condescending infantilization.” Mirth works best when it is staff-generated or staff-approved. Know your people well enough to know how they like to play as well as work. Check with them before assuming that a good time will be had by all.

Cultivate the catalysts of fun on your crew.

Most workplaces are blessed to have some people on staff who make the place brighter just by showing up. I’m talking about emotionally intelligent individuals who read people and situations well. They know when stress is best relieved by laughter, when people need a word of encouragement, how to tell and take a joke, how to tease without venom, and how to play a prank that everyone, including the victim, thinks is terrific.

Assuming these staffers are class acts as well as class clowns (that is, good at their daily work as well as catalysts for fun) then your job as a boss is to let them know how valuable they are. Enlist their input when planning social or team-building activities.

Be a good sport.

Sometimes, the most fun people can have at work is laughing at the boss. Don’t assume it’s mutiny if they do a dead-on impression of your speaking style, parody a memo you’ve written or tell jokes about some lame mistake you made. One of the greatest dividends for being a leader known for quality, integrity and the respect of staff is that everyone can enjoy it when you’re the brunt of a joke, yourself included.

Take a cue from past Poynter President Jim Naughton, who never met a goofy hat he couldn’t wear to work or a prank he couldn’t enjoy — or improve. One of his first acts as president of the institute was to install a pool table in his office and declare it community property. Why? Here’s his philosophy:

“Fun matters. Fun makes up for modest pay. It takes the sting out of disappointment. It facilitates collaboration. It serves the interests of retention.”

Food fuels fun.

Take it from culinary legend James Beard, who said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” Or leadership icon Homer Simpson, “Donuts: Is there anything they can’t do?” What testimony to the power of treats in the workplace. Yes, recent budget cuts may have made it hard for the boss to pick up the tab for frequent celebratory cakes and pizza breaks, but I know that a “pot luck” mindset can evolve fairly easily in its place. That’s especially the case when employees discover that their manager baked the cookies or paid for the bagels. Soon, people stop mourning the catered days of yore and begin cooking up their own fun.

There are plenty of books, Web sites and even consulting firms devoted to fun in the workplace, including one that advocates celebrating April 1 as “International Fun at Work Day.” I hope you and your team strive to keep things fun every day.

You’ve seen my five tips. In today’s podcast, I’ll tell you how I drew on all five as I pulled off an event one staffer told me was the best meeting he’d ever attended.

Poynter’s leadership and management expert Jill Geisler shares practical information on leadership and management that’s valuable for bosses in newsrooms and all walks of life.

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