Think back to your first day on the job. Were you anxious, excited and ready to prove they made a great hire? Could you see how much work needed to be done? Did you want to be taken seriously? That was me, fresh out of grad school and ready to make my mark as a professor. I put my task goggles on and got straight to work.
As is customary, my students filled out their anonymous opinion surveys at the end of the semester. I was confident mine would be good — I had done my best, poured my heart and soul into them, and they had acquired new knowledge and skills. So imagine my shock as I read comments like, “Really bright. Doesn’t care about students.” Ouch. How could my intentions be so misunderstood and my work so unappreciated?
As I pondered the feedback, I realized that in my haste to hammer knowledge into their brains, I had overlooked the relational component of the job. Unlike a friendship or a peer-to-peer relationship, I had the power of a grade. You hold the power of a job. My students gutted it out because they had to. Might some of your employees feel equally trapped?
The following semester, I took time to learn about them — their hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, and the best way to provide critical feedback. My evaluations, and more importantly, student relationships, improved dramatically. Classes became more fun for me and for my students. I spent the following summer in China, building relationships and laughing with the Chinese educators I taught. We worked hard, played hard and got great results. Even though we laughed and joked around daily, they took me seriously.
The relationships that summer were different enough that I began to wonder what would happen if I started having fun with my students in the U.S.? Did I really need to be so serious? Would they perform better if classes were more enjoyable? What about you? Have you ever wondered what it would be like if work were more fun for those you oversee, especially during the stress of the busy season?
I’m hunching your results will be a lot like mine and other leaders and workplace cultures that recognize that having fun increases productivity and creativity while decreasing stress, sick days, tardiness and turnover. Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher, authors of “The Levity Effect: Why It Pays To Lighten Up,” state: “People tend to remain with, stay committed to, and give more energy to an organization where good times are interjected into work.”
If you had asked my first group of students if they were having fun, the vast majority and perhaps all would have said no. Lesson learned. If you were to ask my employees and the people I work with today if they are having fun, the overwhelming majority would say “yes.” Why? Because I’ve lightened up and made sure that fun is an ongoing part of the equation.
What about you? How would your team answer the fun question? I encourage you to ask them. If you’ve created relationships of trust, they will tell you the truth. Otherwise, watch their nonverbals and read between the lines. Unless you request it and ensure they feel safe giving it, you’ll rarely get honest feedback.
Take time this busy season to lighten up and laugh at yourself and the quirky things you do. Then unleash your employees who naturally bring laughter and levity to everything they do and let them start to coordinate fun, low-cost activities for your team. While it may feel awkward at first, so did learning to ride a bike, and look how fun that turned out.