C-Suite Agenda

Fun, in Many Forms: Platinum Leaders Cultivate an Enjoyable Environment

Jackie Insinger

“I want to be on the fun team!” Believe it or not, this is something I often run across in companies. Somehow, a narrative forms among the employees that their environment is a drab, monotonous slog, and there’s one particular team, one shiny castle in the clouds, that sticks out as a magical, golden, happy place of fun times and joy.

Is the rest of the office a doldrums of stress and boredom? No. Hardly ever. But the contrast of seeing one team that appears to be having the time of their lives every day at work—and you’re not on it—certainly makes it feel that way.

You can probably picture it: that one department meeting that always shakes the building with the laughter and energy in the conference room. People at their desks outside the room look up at the sound of fun happening where they’re not. They crane their necks and look around. They see it shining from across the rows of desks—the glass-paneled conference room, its light illuminating the rest of the space, filled with happy people having a great time. It’s like an oasis in the desert. Their own mundane situation begins to feel like trudging through molasses in comparison.

In fact, I’ve seen this happen even if the teams have the same number of team members, with the same roles and responsibilities, same workloads, and same workflow. Yet one was considered the “fun team,” while the other was the “dull team.”

The Amazing Effects of Laughter

A Robert Half survey found that 91 percent of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement, while 84 percent feel people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Many of the topics crucial to leadership and team success—authenticity, psychological safety, connection—all happen naturally in times of lightness and joy. A culture that values and incorporates levity and humor into the inherent seriousness of work is proven to foster greater outcomes, including team performance. And not just in the moment—sometimes years later!

While there are many benefits to laughter, two stand out to me. Laughter gives us:

Increased dopamine. Research shows we don’t just get a dopamine hit when we laugh—we begin to feel good simply at the idea, or anticipation, we might laugh.

A hit of oxytocin. That oh-so-useful bonding chemical works to bond your team together—and bonded teams produce results.

Despite these proven perks, adults don’t laugh nearly as much as they could. On average, an adult laughs only 17 times daily; for comparison, the average child laughs 300-400 times per day. (Why so serious? It’s a good question to ask yourself in the mirror from time to time.)

To make things even more grim, people laugh significantly less on weekdays than on the weekends, according to a Gallup survey. So, not only are we a bunch of grumpy adults who laugh less than kids, it’s even worse when we’re at work.

Fun: The Secret Sauce

Fun bonds us, lightens the cognitive load, builds trust, and helps us understand each other better. Fun makes the workplace feel safe, happy, and motivating. As the leader, you won’t be surprised to learn that it begins with you.

Think about times you laughed or had fun at work. What happened? As you go about your day, notice what brings you the most joy. How can you insert more of that into your workday? If you had a half-hour of “playtime” with your team each day, how would you spend it?

Here are a few ways you, as a leader, can spark a culture that values fun:

Action #1: Set the Tone

You don’t have to be a comedian. You’re not funny or gregarious? No problem. All you have to do as a leader is set the bar for what’s acceptable. Show people it’s okay to reveal their joyful side, that their authenticity is valued and appreciated.

Action #2: Create Traditions

One of my CEO clients created a First Fridays tradition by crowdsourcing the group for ideas. He held up a “fun basket” (an empty basket from home) and asked his employees to write down an idea the team could do for under $200 that would be fun to them and put it in the “fun basket.”

Action #3: Spice Up Boring Tasks

Everyone has to stay late to meet an important deadline? Break the monotony and ease tensions with an ice-cream bar. It’s not hard or expensive—a few cartons of ice cream, some plastic bowls and spoons, a few toppings, 15 minutes of eating, chatting, maybe laughing, and you’re back to work.

Action #4: Walk and Talk

I have a client who has a weekly one-on-one meeting with a top team member in another state on the phone rather than through Zoom. No more cameras, they agreed. Before they meet, they each get a fancy coffee—a treat they both enjoy but rarely indulge in. Then they slip on their headphones, walk, sip, and talk.

Action #5: Create a Just-For-Fun Slack Channel

Set up a Slack channel about a topic of interest, like pets, kids, favorite movies, restaurant recommendations—you name it. And as the leader, participate!

Fun Comes in Many Forms

In his yearlong study of professional chefs, Owen Hanley Lynch, Ph.D., an organizational communications professor at Southern Methodist University, found that humor among coworkers can ensure work meets the group’s standards. In a busy restaurant kitchen, there’s no time for slack. Chefs play pranks on peers who aren’t paying close enough attention, such as putting a pot handle in a flame when the user turns their back. Ha-ha! Also: ouch!

Managers are a common foil for chefs’ humor, Lynch found in his study, published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research. It turns out, chefs find great joy in asking managers nonsensical questions about complex cooking techniques. In a high-stress environment, this behavior eases tensions and bonds the chefs, reinforcing their shared Identity.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will the “other fun team.” Keep it authentic—you’re not wanting to clone the original fun team, you just want all teams to have similar camaraderie and excitement about their work. The simple injection of fun into the life of the team can completely transform their outlook, and here are a few ways to help them find fun on their own terms: 

  • Start a “fun” committee at work. Anyone can join. Set a budget that is 100 percent committed to the team spending time together simply having fun.
  • Find opportunities to gamify common team tasks. Create friendly competition with rewards for the winners.
  • Schedule a regular weekly block of time devoted to a playful activity that builds connection on Slack, Teams, or wherever your team does most of their communication. A GIF-off, a Photo Friday…even just a half-hour of digital play built into the workday allows the team to build camaraderie and bring on the fun. 

As people begin to loosen up, crack jokes, and share anecdotes, remember that you are not trying to clone anything. Let the collective team ‘personalities’ develop as they will. The contrast may be more like chocolate and vanilla, two different flavors of the same great thing!

Tuesday

Ninety-one percent of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement. Eighty-one percent feel people with a good sense of humor do a better job. 

Many of the topics crucial to leadership and team success—authenticity, psychological safety, connection—all happen naturally in times of lightness and joy. 

A culture that values and incorporates levity and humor into the inherent seriousness of work is proven to foster greater outcomes, including team performance.

Despite these proven perks, adults don’t laugh nearly as much as they could. On average, an adult laughs only 17 times daily, compared to children, who on average laugh 300 times daily.

Fun bonds us, lightens the cognitive load, builds trust, and helps us understand each other better.

Think about times you laughed or had fun at work. What happened? 

As you go about your day, notice what brings you the most joy. How can you insert more of that into your workday? 

If you had a half-hour of “playtime” with your team each day, how would you spend it?

Thursday

“I want to be on the fun team!” I hear this all the time while coaching companies and their teams.  Somehow, a narrative forms among the employees that there’s one particular team that’s a magical, golden, happy place of fun times and joy.

Their own mundane situation begins to feel like trudging through molasses in comparison. I’ve seen this happen even if the teams have the same number of team members, with the same roles and responsibilities, same workloads, and same workflow.

Fun makes the workplace feel safe, happy, and motivating. As the leader, you won’t be surprised to learn that it begins with you.

You don’t have to be a comedian. You’re not funny or gregarious? No problem.  All you have to do as a leader is set the bar for what’s acceptable. 

Show people it’s okay to reveal their joyful side, that their authenticity is valued and appreciated. Keep it authentic! The simple injection of fun into the life of the team can completely transform their outlook.


Written by Jackie Insinger.
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Jackie Insinger
Jackie Insinger is a Motivation and Communication Expert and a sought-after Executive and Team Dynamics Coach. Jackie combines Positive Psychology with revolutionary tools and programs to help individuals increase performance and fulfillment. She supports teams to become more aligned, communicate more effectively, and support each other more efficiently, leading to increased productivity, performance, and engagement in overall enhanced culture.

With a Psychology degree from Duke University and a Masters from Harvard, Jackie’s work with individuals and teams has positively impacted thousands of people and businesses throughout the world. Jackie’s objective of guiding each client from concept to implementation and then continued execution has created a track record of sustained impact and success.


Jackie Insinger is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn.