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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


What are You In For? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine June 2000

The acronym “TGIF”, and the phase it represents (thank God it’s Friday), has always bothered me.  To me, the phrase indicates our acceptance that work should not be fun – that it should be something that we are glad to get away from come the weekend.  Seeing Wednesday as “hump day” only accentuates the paradigm that work is not something to be enjoyed.  No matter that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work -–it is accepted to be a necessary evil that must be endured in order to enjoy the 30% of our days where do we do not have to go to work.

Personally, I will not accept the presumed fact that “work can’t be fun.”  In fact, I believe that “fun” is one of the three key tenets that work must be designed around in order for an organization to sustain high levels of performance (the other two being fair and focused).  Without fun, intrinsic motivation cannot be ignited and fueled.  Without intrinsic motivation, people won’t give you their hearts, and they will only give you their minds and hands to the degree to which they feel they are being fairly compensated.

Recently, a friend of mine remarked that her company was treating some of its employees like prisoners.  She based this comment on the fact that they had “locked down” the evening and midnight shifts for security reasons, which meant that these people could not even meet with their family members for lunch, either on-site or off.  To top it off, the cafeteria closed at 7 in the evening, leaving these people who work fixed shifts only the vending machines for sustenance.  This brought to mind some thoughts of my own regarding work, prison, and fun.

We like to joke around the house by calling our Labrador, who is named Homer, a prisoner.  He is in solitary most of the day, he has to eat what we give him, and he has strict restrictions on when he can go outside of the prison walls.  To top it off, the food isn’t very good (at least that’s what I’m told).  Homer seems happy enough – perhaps he likes the life behind the prison gate because that is all he knows.

It would be unfair to draw a direct comparison between the life of Homer and the typical workplace.  As Dr. Stephen Covey points out, the key difference between man and animal is that we humans are capable of making choices.  As my past and “best” boss Don taught me, we all have three choices in life if we don’t like our current work environment – live with it, change it, or leave.  Given the current problems with employee retention that are making the headlines, it appears that many people are taking advantage of the last option.  That is why creating a fun and fair workplace is both foundational and critical for high performance.

Note that I used the word “creating” in that last sentence.  Fun workplaces, and in turn high performance workplaces, do not occur by chance.  In fact the reverse is true – workplaces tend to regress away from being fun instead of moving towards it if little or no attention is made to creating a specific type of work environment.  If you want high performance, you have to create a work environment that supports and inspires it.  Work can’t seem like prison, or even remotely resemble it.  It can be something that people look forward to.

In order to move towards a work environment that supports high performance, leadership must take action.  First of all, upper management has to empathize with the working conditions that they provide for their employees.  Some managers struggle to do this even with the work environment they subject their employees to.  Have you ever tried working on a rotating shift schedule where you have to change your biological clock every week or two weeks?  Do you know what it is like to be chastised by an angry customer because the computer system messed up their order?

Secondly, leadership must learn that fun workplaces don’t begin and end with games, casual Fridays, or doughnuts once a month.  They begin with understanding the headaches that your people have to endure each day and taking action to begin eliminating the root causes of those headaches.  Most importantly, high performance is sustained and supported by not behaving like Scrooge, Mr. Spacely, Mr. Mooney, or Mr. Burns, cartoon characters who cared only for themselves and who would subject their people to whatever they wished as long as it paid off in the short term.

It is true that we can leave our workplace whenever we want, if we have the skills that afford us such mobility.  It is my belief however that most people don’t want to leave a place where they have friends and where they do get some sense of accomplishment from day to day.  This is especially true for baby boomers – the new generation of workers however is much less tolerant of a disrespectful, unchallenging, prison-like work environment.  Over the next few years, we will see workplace hopping only become more commonplace in those organizations that fail to recognize that fun and fairness are essential keys to employee motivation and high performance.

I recently spent some time talking with Dr. Patch Adams at a conference.  To me, Patch epitomizes fun.  He also told me however that “if you don’t enjoy what you are doing, get out.”  We are different than our pets.  Unlike Homer, we can move outside the prison walls if we choose to.  We can also choose to take a leadership role in making our workplaces more fair and fun.  After all, what are you in for?

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