#294 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 9          September 1997

When You Lead With Fun, People Follow With Success
by Leslie A. Yerkes

Ms. Yerkes is President of Catalyst Consulting Group, a change management company in Cleveland, Ohio (phone 216-241-3939).  She is author of 301 Ways to Have Fun at Work (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1997).

Tradition says there are two ways to lead:  participative and autocratic, or the carrot and the stick.  What I like to say, however, is that you can choose to lead either by fear or by fun.

Fear is an efficient motivator, at least in the short term.  You can get work from the beast if you beat it; what you’ll never get is loyalty.  Pushed too far, the beast breaks and bites back.  Fear has little redeeming value other than control.

Fun, on the other hand, is of high redeeming value and has a myriad of advantages.  And when you contemplate those advantages, you’ll wonder why anyone would choose to lead through fear, especially when leading with fun is so much, well, fun!

Fun in the workplace is a strategic weapon the good leader has in the arsenal.  When you have a workplace that’s fun, you’ll find that it’s easier to attract good people.  Like the proverbial fly, we’re all attracted to honey quicker than to vinegar.  A fun workplace results in higher morale—people are enjoying themselves while they work.  And that leads to better attendance.  A workplace with high morale produces better results.

When you consider the opposite scenario—a workplace filled with grievances, complaints, unhappy people, high absenteeism, and lower productivity with poor quality—why would anyone want to lead without a little fun?

The term “a fun workplace” needn’t be the ultimate oxymoron.  C. W. Metcalf, a humor consultant and author, said, “We are told that laughter, fun, and play are unadult, unintelligent, and nonprofessional.  Nothing could be further from the truth.”

HR Focus says, in its February 1993 issue, “Ninety-six percent of the executives surveyed by Accountemps believed people with a sense of humor do better at their jobs than those who have little or no sense of humor.  Studies also have shown that people who enjoy their work are more productive and creative, in addition to experiencing greater job satisfaction.”  So how do companies make work fun?  About as many ways as you can imagine!

Some Examples

Jack Kahl, president of Manco, the makers of duct tape, challenged his sales staff to an aggressive goal.  If they met their goal, he would swim across the duck pond in front of headquarters during a chilly day in October.  If the sales staff didn’t make their goal, they would have to make the swim.

The sales department accepted the challenge.  And won.  Jack took the dip.  This proved to be so much fun, that it became an annual event that now includes a picnic.  Jack, by the way, is getting very good at doing the “duck swim.”

Fun in the workplace also reduces stress and increases creativity.  Fran and Evelyn Girard, who own and operate The Forum Conference Center, know this so well that they created something called the POW! Kit.

This kit offers clients a package of toys like Nerf balls, basketball hoops, or Styrofoam darts.  These items help conference attendees interact with each other, think more creatively, and be more relaxed.  It makes them smile, which leads to laughter and makes brainstorming and creative thinking all the more effective. 

One week each summer, and also over one holiday, CDA Management Consulting, Inc. closes its doors so that the staff can spend time with their families.  Voice mail tells callers that the company is closed for appointments, site visits, and training sessions due to “Family Friendly Week” but that all calls will be returned.  CDA reports that most callers say their message can wait, and enthusiastically support this fun tradition.

Angela Wiley of the Blonder Company reports that the order department plays bingo at least once a week.  It’s not regular bingo, however, it’s called Blonder Bingo.  The card consists of customer account numbers, shipping routes, and other company terminology.  During Blonder Bingo days, the order department customer hold time improves by 20% and the abandonment rate by 50%. 

Eileen Douse of Human Dynamics has created “the wacky hour” to re-energize employees and stir their creative juices.  At 3 p.m. everyday, the staff spins wildly in their office chairs for 30 seconds.  Even this short break of “foolishness” revives them when the afternoon doldrums begin.

Rebecca Rogers at University Hospitals in Augusta, Georgia, developed an activity called “Communal Captions.”  To wile away spare time at the copy machine, she posts photos from newspapers and magazines and invites staff members to write funny captions below them.  Not only do the writers enjoy themselves, but so do the less creative folks who simply read them.

Twelve Steps

So how do you go about making work fun?  Like many things in life, making work fun is work.  Here are 12 steps that will make it easier.

1.   Start with yourself.  A rule that successful leaders follow is:  the only thing you can change is yourself.  Are you having fun?  If not, why not?  If you’re not having fun, who else will?

2.  Inspire fun in others.  Encourage others to engage in fun-loving activities; lead by example.     Don’t appoint someone to be in charge of making your workplace fun.  You become the catalyst.  Do something that will be fun.  And take some risks; don’t be afraid to look silly.  It’s only fun.

3.  Create and environment that encourages fun.  Music, bright colors and toys to relieve stress are three easy ways to mold a fun-loving environment.  Create surprise by changing things around regularly.

4.  Celebrate the benefits of fun.  Every successful cause has a champion.  Become fun-atical about recognizing fun when you see it.  If you reward fun, it will reward you.

5.  Make it your goal to find and remove those things and those people that inhibit the free flow of fun.  Fun unfettered is contagious and helps you grow.

6.  Look for the humor in your situation.  Be the person who can laugh when things look bleak.  Your greatest source of comic inspiration is often yourself.

7.  Follow your intuition—be spontaneous.  Don’t wait for fun to find you or for the perfect moment; make fun happen when you need it.

8.  Don’t postpone your fun.  Fun isn’t a reward; it’s the lubricant that gets things done easily and effectively.  Make fun a regular part of your daily routine.

9.  Make fun inclusive.  The first rule of fun has always been “The more the merrier.”  Fun isn’t a private club; fun is for sharing.

10.  Smile. And laugh. A lot.  When you say “Hi” with a smile, you’ll find people smile back.  It takes no special skill and costs nothing.  All it takes is a decision.  Yours.

11.  Become known as “fun-loving.”  Make it your personal mission to infuse fun into everything you do and you’ll be paid the ultimate compliment:  everyone will want to be on your team.

12.  Put fun into action.  A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a smile, followed by a laugh, and pretty soon you’re having fun.

If you want a staff that’s productive and happy, make sure they’re having fun.  And since you’re the leader of this group, it’s up to you to have fun first.  Start now by grabbing an idea and taking action.  Momentum will build before you know it, fun will become a way of life.

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