They Who Laugh, Last!
March, 1999
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

The Fear of Fun at Work

"Most of the time I don’t have any fun.

The rests of the time, I don’t have any fun at all."

(Woody Allen)

A funny thing is happening in American companies these days. From very small companies to Fortune 500 corporations, businesses are learning to put fun to work. The word is out that employees who enjoy their jobs work more effectively and are more productive, and companies are reexamining a long-held assumption that has formed the core of the American work ethic. That assumption is that work and play don’t mix.

In this month’s article, we’ll discuss the hesitations companies have in allowing fun into the work place, and then focus next month on the reverse--why more and more companies are abandoning their fears and inviting employees to do things to make work fun.

In my humor programs, I generally ask the audience at some point to tell me the opposite of a string of words that I give them. I’ll say "heavy," "tall," etc., and then say "work." The answers that come up from all over the room, of course, are "light," "short," and finally, "play!"

The reason for this little exercise, of course, is to point out the starting assumption that most of us have when it comes to the relationship between work and play. We assume that if you let a playful attitude or a bit of fun come up on the job, you can’t be working! Work and play are considered incompatible with each other. That’s why employees who know the value of making work fun generally do it on the sly. They know what fellow employees--especially their boss-- will think if they see a lighthearted gesture or hear laughter coming out of their office.

The underlying assumption that humor, laughter or a playful attitude on the job will be viewed negatively is very pervasive in most corporations. When I talk to employees (both management and non-management) in private about this, they almost always say that they have to be careful about letting their sense of humor show on the job. They fear that people will feel they’re being unprofessional, and that they’re incompetent, not taking their job seriously, etc.

The negative stereotypic views we have (at least in the work place) of people in whom humor, laughter or a lighter style of interacting is a prominent part of their personality are the reasons why my advice is to always establish your competence on the job first, before letting your sense of humor show up. This is true for everyone in virtually all kinds of jobs, but is especially true if you’re new on the job, younger and--in many cases--a woman. If people have no prior experience with you, their judgments about your skills and work habits will mainly reflect their stereotypic perceptions of people who play all the time, and don’t work.

Once you’ve established that you’re good at what you do, and that you’re professional and take your work seriously, you’ll find that humor and a lighter style will work for you, not against you. The number one rule, of course, is to always be sensitive to when any kind of humor or laughter is and is not appropriate.

I’ve only found one case where employees were specifically warned in a formal way to refrain from anything suggestive of fun on the job. The president of a division of a major corporation was walking down the hall and heard laughter coming from a couple of offices. The next day, the following memo was sent to everyone in the building.

"Henceforth, there will be no laughing or smiling allowed in this

building during working hours. Laughing distracts fellow

employees. And if you’re smiling, you are not thinking about

your work."

We’re so conditioned to be serious and stifle any sign of fun and humor on the job that employees often find it difficult to let go and have fun even when specifically invited to do so. I always take a few minutes in my humor programs to play a game that gets people up to do something physically playful--even silly. When the program is at a hotel (e.g., at a convention), most people in the room are able to let go and enter the spirit of fun. But when it’s in the building they work in, the percentage of people comfortable with letting the playful side of themselves out is always much smaller. People become nervous and self-conscious, apparently concerned about their image and apparent lack of professionalism.

This is the obstacle people I’m helping companies overcome. As information about the health, coping, and productivity benefits resulting from humor continues to reach companies, top management will gradually become more comfortable in adding elements of fun in the work place. Next month, we’ll focus on those companies which have turned the corner and now welcome the idea of putting fun to work.

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