"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Is Your Work Fun?

I once worked for a company which had obligatory ‘fun days’ – outings that were billed as a good time but were actually management’s attempt to build teamwork, camaraderie, and a sense of fellowship which would translate into a more productive workplace.  Every year the questionnaires came around.  “Ready for some fun? Please check which activity you would like best.” Every choice was transparently purposeful, required doing things together as a group.  While most of us wrote in “bar hopping’, the decisions – ultimately made by management – were far from fun. 

The worst ever was an outing to the Spy Museum and participation in its Operation Spy – the biggest, hokiest, lamest event in the whole Washington region.  Absolutely no one ever recommended this FBI cloak-and-dagger knock-off to family and friends.  Few of us even knew the museum existed; but management decided that solving crimes together would be a great, fun way, of preparing us for solving the problems of economic development.  It is hard to overestimate how bad the Spy Museum’s Operation Spy is, but it is worse than any two-bit funhouse in a Midwest carny show, complete with dimming lights, moving floors, creepy-looking spy mannequins, one-way mirrors, and Wurlitzer organ music.

We all went because we had to, but those of us who had walked the neighborhood knew that there were some good bars near the museum. We opted to walk rather than take the team bus, and by the time our colleagues arrived, we were deep into our third martinis. Even four martinis wouldn’t have mitigated the torture of listening to clues squawked out from tinny speakers, following minimum-wage ‘guides’ to look for traces of the ‘crime’, and waiting for ‘prison’ doors to clang shut and reopen.  It was a penitential bad dream.

The same firm, which worked its employees to the bone, had the chutzpah to reward performance with fun events held at the basement cafeteria.  Employees were given stickers for hard work, loyalty, long hours, and plain doggedness, and all honorees gathered every month for free coffee and donuts and a congratulatory speech by the President.

Although employees had long lobbied the company to increase staff to lighten the load on existing workers, to give them a chance for take advantage of career-building opportunities, and to get home at a reasonable hour, the company had deflected each and every demand since there was always a long line of eager, mission-driven young people knocking on the door.  The real message from the President was loud and clear: If you don’t like it here, there are many others ready to take your place. 

The little coffee-klatches, therefore, had just the opposite effect to that intended.  Rather than make employees feel good about their effort, it dispirited them.  It made them feel far worse than if they had been left alone to work in their cubes and collect their paychecks.

Every year our department held a retreat – two days out of the office to discuss issues, prospects, and past performance; and to set forth an agenda for the next year.  The retreat was to be about business, but was also to be fun. Under prior management these retreats were held off-site, usually in some small resort not far from Washington; but in recent, budget-lean years, they were held in the airless, windowless conference rooms on the B-3 level of the building.  The chairs were standard molded plastic-and-steel models designed to keep conferees upright and awake; the lunches – billed as ‘fun’ ethnic food – were low-rent greasy Chinese or ‘Italian’ – gummy penne and carrot sticks; and the fluorescent tube lighting so glaring and unremitting that some of us claimed ‘eyesight disability’ and wore baseball caps to cut the glare.

Games were always part of these retreats; and true to form they were never fun at all, but flimsily-designed activities to create bonding and mutual understanding. ‘Who Are You?’ was one such game.  Everyone was asked to fill out a questionnaire about their personal likes and habits. “Where do you like to eat lunch? What kind of music do you like? What’s your favorite TV program? What’s your favorite dress-up outfit?” Completed questionnaires were then read out in front of the group, and we were expected to match answers with colleagues. 

Not only did very few people answer honestly, they provided twisted answers – death heads, brutal misogynist gangsta rap, chitlin places in gangland. There were enough eager beavers in the group to convince management that there were only a few malcontents who were not really bad, just having their own brand of ‘fun’. Two days of this nonsense seemed like an eternity.

The worst ‘fun’ I ever experienced was at a do-good organization that I had mistakenly joined.  I had been enticed by the whopping grant they had received from a major foundation, and I had dismissed reports that the place had some wacko ideas. During my first week, the organization had a mini-retreat, and as an ice-breaker we were all given cut-out images of animals. Some of us were giraffes, others gazelles, and others horses.  I was an elephant and was expected to march around the room trumpeting.  To this day I have no clue what that escapade was all about, but I refused to participate and quit a few weeks later. 

Oliver Burkeman, writing in the New York Times (12.12.13) notes that deliberate efforts by management to encourage productivity through enforced fun – ‘fungineering’ as it has been called – rarely works:

Indeed, there’s evidence that this approach might have precisely the opposite effect, making people miserable and thus reaffirming one of the oldest observations about happiness: When you try too hard to obtain it, you’re almost guaranteed to fail.

What is hard to understand is why management so quickly and easily assume that employees are stupid – that they will not see through the charade and the smoke and mirrors designed to hide bottom-line realities; that they will not see enforced ‘fun’ as patronizing, demeaning, and insulting.

Instead of striving to make work fun, managers should concentrate on creating the conditions in which a variety of personality types, from the excitable to the naturally downbeat, can flourish. That means giving employees as much autonomy as possible, and ensuring that people are treated evenhandedly. According to a recent Danish study, lack of fairness at work is a strong predictor of depression, and even heavy workloads don’t bring people down, provided their bosses are fair.

Yet even this very sensible idea can and has been distorted.  The infamous Myers-Briggs Test, a pop-psychological tool for categorizing individuals by personality type, is used by managers to identify and then celebrate the diversity of workers and to encourage respect for difference.  It’s OK to be quiet, introspective, solitary, and reflective (dorky); and we appreciate you for your uniqueness.  What often happens is that management uses the results of this hokey test to pigeonhole employees, to reward those who are like them, and to marginalize all the rest. 

So potent is the belief system surrounding Myers-Briggs that managers will believe anything the results show, regardless of the obvious character of the respondent.  A friend of mine who had a graduate degree in sociology, deliberately answered wrong on the test.  He deliberately made himself into a person that he was not.  When the results were read during a retreat, the Senior Vice President nodded, smiled, and crowed over his compassion, concern for others, and sensitivity.  I love my friend, bujt he can be a real arrogant prick, and concerned and compassionate he is not.

Myers-Briggs is popular among managers not only because they believe its faux science but because it is fun. Employees like comparing each other, giggling at the surprises, and gossiping about Renee from Accounting.  The fact remains that any manager or employee who pays the slightest bit of attention to colleagues during eight-hour days and five-day weeks will know who they are, what they like and dislike, and what they can and cannot do. Myers-Briggs is a party game.

Not many workers can claim to like their jobs.  If you are a bus driver, work at the DMV, flip burgers, work the night shift at a factory, or labor at a thousand other poorly-paid, dispiriting jobs, you don’t expect happiness or job satisfaction.  Intellectual and professional reward is a privilege of the well-educated and well-off.   For those menial laborers, all they can expect is decent working conditions – not too hot, not too cold; proper ventilation, sufficient bathroom breaks, and decent lighting.

For those of us in the higher ranks of employment where job satisfaction is not only a goal but considered a right, we have to put up with the shenanigans of obtuse managers who think they can lull us into compliance and submission through fun and games.

Somehow I don’t think this carnival has reached Wall Street or K Street.  Can you imagine the SVP of Lehman Bros. trumpeting like an elephant in a team-building exercise?  On the other hand, maybe a little levity might have cushioned the fall.

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