Many years ago, a friend of mine lived in an inner-city corporation flats complex. The family scrimped and saved, eventually accumulating enough money to buy a house on a newly built estate in the suburbs. Understandably, they were excited about the move and focused on getting the house furnished. While the garden was left in a sorry state by the builder, this was not on the immediate ‘worry list’ as they got to grips with paying a mortgage for the first time.

Congratulations Letter:  To celebrate this achievement, I penned a ‘welcome aboard’ letter from Tess O’Neill, a fictitious ‘Chairperson’ of the non-existent Residents Association. The letter opened with a gushing paragraph welcoming the family to the area. Mid way down the page it contained the following:

“It’s been brought to my attention, that you haven’t yet managed to attend to your garden. This is negatively impacting the external appearance of your house and the general estate. In the suburbs, there are certain standards that we all have to adhere to. If you are from a background which didn’t offer much exposure to gardening, I’m sure that we can organise assistance from those of us who are more experienced with personal outdoor space”.

The Reaction: The family went nuts. They even identified the ‘culprit’, a local woman who’d been seen glancing at their garden as she passed by on her daily visit to the shops. “The cheek of that oul wan”; “How do they know where we’re from anyway?” and so on. But they never said anything. I eventually owned up that it was a practical joke – and they came to see the funny side of it (most things can be forgiven over time). We’re still friends. In the interests of journalistic accuracy, I’m happy to report that their garden is now very neat and does not contain a single gnome.

Workplace Fun:  I was reminded of that story during a recent change programme run in a large insurance company. The content was clever and clinically executed.  But it certainly wasn’t fun. Not even mildly amusing. The organization culture was relentlessly focused on ‘the next goal’, without a backwards glance towards recent achievements. The Impact: Staff were downbeat, walking around with lead in their shoes. Of course you can run @ 135 miles per hour. For a time. But, if you want to sustain high performance, you need to add another ingredient into the mix. Humour. That old recipe “the beatings will continue until morale improves” produces the wrong outcome.

Serious Places: Organizations are designed to carry out serious roles. Transporting cash. Conducting heart surgery. Caring for Alzheimer’s patients and so on. But, regardless of the seriousness of the mission, you can always tap into humour in the workplace. When you do, it releases extra energy, a hidden gear which opens up the performance throttle.

Personal Style:  So how do you tap into this if you are not a raconteur with great ‘War Stories’ to tell? One Actuary, perfectly fitting the stereotype, said to me: “I’m not really a fun guy to be around”. The response here is simple: If you don’t have it, don’t flaunt it. But, you can move to the side of the stage and allow others to play the fun part. To create an atmosphere which is good humoured, you celebrate small wins, birthdays and christenings. You figure out ways to humanize the workplace. There is zero contradiction around being task focused and being fun; they are definitely not mutually exclusive.

When it comes to driving performance, you need to stay on top of the game. Tell your team to “wake up and smell the complacency”. But that can’t be the only ‘gift’ you bring to the party because it loses power over time. The question is simple:  Do you create an atmosphere where people (not robots) can give of their best? I know that it’s counter-intuitive. But if you want to generate higher productivity, don’t solely focus on this. And, one more thing. Try to develop the confidence to be able to laugh at yourself along the way. Try it. You might even enjoy it.

Hey,  don’t forget now. Let me know when you decide to move house. Delighted to drop you a welcome on-board note!



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