I’m writing a book on fun at work, and I’ve never been satisfied with the draft title: Fun NOW! My brother and partner in business jestingly added “You will have” before and “or die, fool!” after to highlight its silliness, but we were still at a loss to come up with something better. Fun NOW! referred to the question raised by my Fun Manifesto: Why wait? Why wait for fun when you can have fun NOW? But it’s still a silly title.
I have a new draft title, The Fun Paradox, and it’s the subject of this post. It popped into my head one evening as I was examining my previous writings on fun at work and noticed that contradictions and paradoxes were the rule rather than the exception. I think that viewing fun at work as the resolution of a paradox – a paradox in appearance and practice but not in fact – has helped me organize and effectively communicate the power of fun at work. But what is the Fun Paradox?
The Stereotype is Worst – the Reality is Best
Think back to a memorable occasion where you had fun at work. What were you doing? Was it by yourself or in a group? Was it associated with a notable success, or just another day at work? Do you think your boss approved, and should he have?
If you’re like the majority of people I’ve interviewed, your most memorable fun at work happened while you were working with other people rather than alone, and it happened while you were doing a particularly good job that your boss would have been proud of. This contrasts markedly with the initial impression most of us have when we think of having fun at work. The stereotype I’ve encountered most frequently is a cross between Pike Place Fish Market and the movie Waiting, a hybrid of burly fishmongers tossing huge salmon across a crowded room combined with busboys hiding in the walk-in sucking the nitrous oxide out of whipping creme cans or smoking ganja by the dumpster. A cross between desirable but inaccessible playtime and frightening misbehavior – you can’t imagine how you’d turn your workplace into a fish-throwing funhouse, and you really don’t want to encourage the screwups who have fun at everyone else’s expense.
My recent memory of fun at work was sitting at a lab bench when I should really have been parked in my office, working with my crew. As usual in science labs, we were each working on an independent project, almost completely dissociated from our colleagues except during the weekly lab meeting. But that day we were all working together while separate, which gradually turned into working together. Despite the periodic caustic comments of our lab bummer dude, the doubtful “reality” remarks of the lab doubter, and my own focused, uncommunicative efforts of questionable managerial caliber, during the course of that day the total became greater than the sum of the parts. Later I realized that it’s difficult to not be a group when you’re working as a group: we can stay alone and seemingly unaware by sticking to our computers, minimizing real human contact, and taking adversarial roles in mandatory contacts, but once you really sit down and start working together, that sort of artificial separation is nearly impossible – and feels stupid – to maintain.
The paradox became clear when our associate, and head of the next-door lab, came out of his cubicle and made disparaging comments about our fun. We’d become louder as we worked more closely together, there was laughter, and we’d started up the clothespin game. The clothespin game is an awareness exercise, the point being to clip a clothespin on a player without them noticing it, ideally for long enough that someone outside the group points it out (highest score is given to ‘pins that make it all the way back home before being detected). Our associate, Rainer, focused very intently on his work with his back to the cubicle opening, and so was a perennial target for clothespinning. On this occasion he tore apart the ‘pin, broke it, and threw the pieces down, and left saying some variant of, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?” He saw our fun at work as a complete waste of time, and bad for us (and him) as well. I, on the other hand, noted that by the end of the day we’d accomplished more than any other day that month, and had gone some way towards mending the damage that the lab doubter, bummer, and I had done over time to lab morale. We ended up together at a local watering hole after work (including a member of my team who is a Mormon), celebrating the events of the day. While we did talk quite a bit about the ‘pinning, we also had a more open and productive discussion of our work than we’d had in months of previous lab meetings.
If my interviews are any guide, when you walk by a room at work filled with laughing, happy people you assume they’re having a party, taking a break, or getting ready to go out to lunch – anything but working at peak performance. This cultural bias recurs frequently when we examine fun at work, and is the primary obstacle to overcome if we’re to make work fun and reach our greatest potential. This bias is far from universal, even within the corporate culture in America, and many organizations have found through experience that workers having fun are happier and more productive. I invite you to check out Fun.Com, a company I ran across when I was searching for an available web address. Admittedly, they’re in a fun business (Halloween costumes), but they get it. Fun works.
If you still don’t see the Fun Paradox as a paradox, I invite you to take the following challenge: when you visit a business, as soon as you walk in the door make a guess about how much fun it is to work there. Don’t wait – go for a snap judgement. Now do your business, and note how well the place functions. Is the service snappy, helpful, and good-humored? Did you get what you want at a good price for great quality? How was the followup? Repeat a few times, and I claim that you’ll find a clear association between your snap judgement of how fun the workplace is and your detailed assessment of performance. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I find that a single sniff of the air as I walk in the door is enough to give an amazingly accurate measurement of whether I can expect good service, quality products, and great customer support.
We’re amazingly accurate fun detectors, and this is for very sound evolutionary reasons. Fun is a meta-metric, encapsulating a whole pile of human factors, performance measures, and intangibles into a simple gut feeling. To use Kahneman’s term from Thinking, Fast and Slow, fun is detected by System 1, and it’s fast. In my experience, it’s incredibly fast – within a few seconds I can accurately assess fun at a business. I’ve only had to reassess on a handful of occasions, and invariably to make a harsher judgement after finding that my first contact was a rare flower that could bloom in bad soil. Try it yourself, and you’ll have taken the first step to resolving the Fun Paradox.