Why can’t work be fun?









Leadership styles come in many flavors. What works for you may not work for someone else, and they may not approve. But be true to yourself. And pay attention to the effect you have overall.

A new executive took a creative risk in presenting his company’s policy on summer dress code at an all-hands meeting I attended recently at a medium-sized Philadelphia corporation. A sharp-witted New Yorker with a flair for fun, he decided to dress up, or dress down, more accurately, to prove his point. He delivered the first part of the policy—about what types of shirts were appropriate summer attire—in a very tacky, but collared, shirt. He then changed into a very tasteful, but uncollared, T-shirt—which was supposed to demonstrate what was not appropriate to wear—and asked his audience, “Now, does this make any sense to you?” A collective boo rose from the crowd. Of course it didn’t make sense to them.

The executive followed that up with a deadpan dissertation on what flip flops qualified as fashionable–and, therefore, acceptable to wear—and what types of flip flops were too casual—and, therefore, wouldn’t cut it in the workplace. With affectionate authenticity and several pairs of flip flops in hand to support his point, he gave the associates an insider’s view just how long and to what degree of detail the executive team discussed the flip flop issue. Hilarious. He has us rolling in our seats and gasping for breath we were laughing so hard.

Throughout the meeting, I observed his approach continuing to make people laugh and, more importantly, renewing spirits. This is effective in the workplace for a number of reasons.

First, this executive immediately established a connection with his audience, using humor to make them comfortable and let them know it’s OK to lighten up as the summer approaches. By putting everyone at ease and encouraging them to have fun, he is more likely to get better results.

Second, as a representative of the executive team noting the obvious absurdity of the flip flop discussion, this leader encouraged others to question those with authority and poke good natured fun at them.

This kind of self effacement is on the continuum between lack of transparency at one end and vulnerability (in a positive way) at the other. To be vulnerable is to be true to your authentic self, and research is finding that leaders who recognize their own humanity become more authentic, and this alone encourages authenticity in others.

But what does all that mean to the bottom line? Being vulnerable and having fun breaks down barriers and builds trust. And when there is trust in the leadership team, the possibility for achieving great things grows exponentially.

Later in the day, I was talking with this executive. It was clear that he did this with a bit of fear and trepidation but was joyous at being able share the absurdity of the moment with others and have them get and understand it. It connected them to him, him to them, them to each other, and everyone to the executive team. Our discussion, though, was around being liked and whether that was important to leaders and leadership. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe being liked, being affable is a great leadership quality. I look back on my career and know that I have work harder and, more importantly, more innovatively for and with leaders I have liked.

So a simple thing like having fun – it means the world to people.

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