Have fun at work - it's productive

01:43, Jan 31 2009

You'd be hard pressed to find a more cynical breed of person than a journalist.

So, to invite one to a workplace motivation seminar pitching a power-of-positive-thinking attitude is to invite trouble.

Surely, creating a healthy workplace environment devoid of the usual toxic traits and personalities has got to be more complicated than simply carting to work a don't-worry-be-happy attitude.

Not according to American psychologist Stephen Lundin, author of the perennial best-seller Fish! The 67-year-old who ended a decade on the professional development circuit in Christchurch last week claims workplace morale and corporate success will sink or swim on the attitude of employees.

Sounds simple enough, but Lundin says the scarcity of positive work environments and employees packing a good attitude would suggest we humans are not as smart as we think. "It's simplicity on the other side of complexity," says Lundin of his ideas on building a better workplace.

Lundin, who playfully refers to himself during his seminars as "The Big Tuna", argues that workplace culture and outcomes can be improved by coming to work and "being present", making the most of one's time on the job, and trying to be the kind of person you would want to spend time with yourself.


If putting one's best foot forward seems a bit facile, if not old-fashioned, Lundin has no shortage of examples of workplaces that have been transformed by an attitude adjustment or two.

The most notable, and the one for which his philosophy is named, is Seattle's Pike Place Fish Market which leads its closest competitors by at least 10 per cent in profitability.

The world-renowned market is famed for its lively and animated fish mongers who, in addition to pitching fish across the floor, joke and mingle freely with customers to make the experience a memorable one.

The dour and dull have no place behind or in front of its counters. In interviews with some of the cheeky characters who do the job for a living (screened as part of Lundin's presentation), they talk about the satisfaction they get from what might otherwise be a smelly, low-paying, lacklustre way to make a living were it not for their positive attitude.

"It's not about doing a dream job," says Lundin. "It's about what they bring to the job while they're there. And what they discovered is it makes life far more satisfying to treat it as though it was precious that life that they spend there."

At times Lundin sounds more preacher than business coach. He won't deny it.

"I'm not just here to give a business training seminar the primary reason I'm here is for you," he tells his crowd.

Lundin suggests the time we spend at work miserable, resentful, grumpy, half-there is really just life wasted. He also believes you can't fully separate work life from personal life.

"There's talk about this work-life balance, but I have another view: it's just life," says the burly, straight-talking American, laying out his four-step plan.

Lundin's philosophy is built around four components, which he suggests "mixed in the right proportions, result in a high quality of life at work". In short, they are: play, making someone's day, being there, and choosing one's attitude.

If it seems basic, it is no accident.

Lundin, who has a PhD in psychology, says he spent a career penning "boring academic books" and wanted to create something that, by comparison, was accessible, interesting and had real life applications outside the ivory tower.

He credits Pike Place Fish Market with providing him the raw materials and inspiration to do so. "Everything that happened was stimulated and provoked by Pike Place."

Lundin maintains that the type of playfulness found at the fish market, with its joke-cracking seafood slingers, can be incorporated at just about any workplace.

He defies the notion that workplaces need to be serious by nature, arguing that adults, not unlike children, are happier, more productive people when they play together.

It is a suggestion that, at first blush, makes a cynical journalist cringe, but when I think about my own workplace, it is not such an outrageous claim.

One of the moments of levity at my workplace occurs when our hard-boiled crime reporter, during moments of writer's block, tests the reflexes of unsuspecting co-workers by lobbing a spongy blue ball at them. It often triggers a five-minute rally among the newsroom, giving red-eyed journos a break from their computer and a much-needed postural realignment.

So, perhaps play at work is not such a preposterous idea after all.

Then there is the editor's lolly jar, which periodically makes its rounds. That sugar-loaded container is also a conduit for small talk with the boss, which also seems to be healthy for the sake of employee-management relations.

Lundin says playfulness on the job and acts of kindness help build human connections which make workplaces more desirable for staff and in turn inspire employees to do a better job.

A telecommunications call centre in the United States that adopted Lundin's strategies found that by giving employees greater freedom and turning the place into a party zone (complete with disco ball, music, plastic beach balls and rollerblades) increased retention rates by 25%. In an industry renowned for perpetually high turnover, it was a small miracle.

Heather Campbell, director of Christchurch community nursing agency Florence Nightingale, says she adopted some of Lundin's strategies two years ago to bring more joy to what can be a daunting job.

"It was about putting fun into people's day and making them feel good," she says.

To that end, Campbell holds daily "counselling sessions" where staff are invited to vent about personal issues and other beefs before getting down to business.

She also installed a lolly tree at the office for carers dropping in, and put up photos of all the staff.

Campbell admits cynics can be tough to bring on board.

"Some were great and caught on to it; others were so miserable they didn't know how they could put it into their day, and as much as you try to work with them they choose not to take part in that.

"It's amazing how one person's foul mood can affect a whole group," says Karen McCall, office manager of BarterCard New Zealand.

McCall says the start to her week became increasingly arduous as a result of a colleague who perpetually moaned about her disdain for Mondays.

Eventually, she says, staff became so fed up with the chronic complaints they started to mimic the person (in a non-bullying kind of way), which eventually solved the problem.

Judging by Lundin's book sales, the office sourpuss would appear to be endemic, or else interest in improving workplace cultures is fierce.

Lundin's book has been on the business best-seller list of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times for four years running.

But with economic tides turning recently, one has to wonder how feel-good practices will hold up amid threats of redundancies and cut-backs.

Lundin insists his Fish! philosophy is weather-resistant.

"It's (the economic climate) irrelevant," he says. "There are always things like that going on; you're still living there. And while you're there, the issue should be what do you choose?

"You can choose to have a rotten time, you can choose to be ugly to one another, you can choose to treat customers like crap, you can choose to pretend that the time you spend there doesn't mean anything, that it's just wasted life.

"Or you could choose something different; choose to be alive there for the time you have."

But how much enthusiasm can an individual bring to a job or workplace without the support of management?

Lundin concedes employees can only do so much to transform their environment.

He says executive level support is often necessary to sustain a positive workplace culture.

In fact, he cites "managerial arrogance" as the primary obstacle to change. "I think it ranks No.1. I don't think there's even a close second or a close third, or fourth."

So how far can the don't-worry-be-happy attitude carry a person in the face of killjoy management?

"You do what you can do in the place where you influence, but if your life is suffering because of it, you start looking for ways to find a different place to play," he says. "Because life is too short to suffer arrogance."


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