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.
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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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates