Fun for Some, and Some for Fun

In the Harvard Business Review this week, Grant McCracken takes on the concept of “forced fun” in a corporation, using the way Zappo’s treats visitors as an example. Here’s an extract of Mr. McCracken’s post:

Visitors touring the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas are greeted noisily. Staffers blow horns and ring cowbells to bid them welcome.

This sort of thing puts my teeth on edge. Call me a grinch. Call me a humorless, life-hating, stick in the mud, but commandeering personal emotions in the interest of forced conviviality seems to me wrong. I believe emotions are mostly a private matter and should not be controlled by the corporation.

I have never met Grant, and have no idea whether or not he is a grinch, but one thing I can say: his logic is flawed.

I get the point – who wants to be subject to inauthentic displays of emotion, either as the giver or recipient? But as many of the commentators point out, people choose to work where they will and do business where they will, and corporate culture is one of those aspects that draws or repels.

As our grandmothers would tell us, honey works better then lemons.

By using terms like “forced fun” and “commandeering personal emotions”, the author tries to portray the issue as one where employers are infringing on private freedoms, or encouraging insincerity, a place where an employer should not tread. But the freedom issue is really at the point of decision to work within a company that has a certain culture. And some companies choose to have a culture of fun, and excitement, and engagement.

People are complex and holistic beings, and emotions are woven into us, impacted by our surroundings, our co-workers, our behaviors, and yes, even our expectations and the expectations of others. Any business owner should not only own the tangible and financial aspects of the company, but also own the responsibility to develop (and model) a positive culture. Unless lemon juice is preferred. Take your pick. As a customer, I’ll take my pick as well. Guess what kind of climate I’ll seek out?

Mr. McCracken says, near the conclusion, “When we commandeer the emotional lives of our employees we waste a valuable resource.” I respectfully disagree (PLUS – read this article just published by WSJ Online, regarding happiness in the workplace). When we FAIL to commandeer the abilities of our employees, and don’t encourage self-control and productivity in all areas (including imagination, task performance, and emotional engagement), then we leave the company culture to drift. Leadership of people is not simply addressing 70% of who they are. It’s tapping the entire potential of each individual and making a much greater “whole” in the process.

I’m all for personal authenticity. And for corporate authenticity. If someone wants to be sour, moody, or emotionally fickle and/or disengaged, I’m sure there are plenty of places to go and be “authentic.” Please, however – don’t go to Zappo’s, and don’t try to work with me!

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About Steve Woodruff
Steve Woodruff is a blogger, a Connection Agent, and a consultant in the pharma/healthcare industry. He specializes in helping people and companies make mutually beneficial connections.

17 Responses to Fun for Some, and Some for Fun

  1. BRAVO! Choosing your job should be similar to choosing any relationship – the pieces have to fit for it to be successful. Unfortunately, if we don’t give enough thought to that when accepting a position, we can end up in the wrong place, and those of us who are emoticons in action can shrivel up and lose our motivation to strive and work hard for the business. I am a firm believer of fun–at the very least, humor–in the workplace. It keeps people checked in, instead of checked out. Thanks Steve!

  2. Chris Bailey says:

    Steve, while I understand and can agree with certain points you make, there are certain arguments that Grant makes which are also valid. Most of us want to work in a place where we find fulfillment. Does that mean it has to be “fun”? What exactly does “fun” mean? And does that mean that other emotions cannot be held at the same level as happiness?

    I grow uneasy with organizations which employ “corporate culture” like a cudgel to get everyone in line and to weed out people who are not like themselves. Are new ideas going to be elicited from everyone who follows the same top-down thinking that corporate culture demands? As an anthropologist, culture is such a tenuous concept and not one that can be completely controlled from the C-Level suite.

    I’m not totally against what Zappos is doing. I actually admire them for doing a lot of things right for their employees. But I think it’s a mistake to set this organization so high on the alter of corporate beneficence and insist that all other companies model everything they do on the “Zappos Way”.

  3. Chris, I do agree that the ultimate goal is to be able to maximize our talents and add value in a role/environment that is fulfilling (whatever that happens to mean for the individual). The key is to find that place and fit in – Zappo’s is perfect for Zappo’s, and other cultures are great for other companies – but make no mistake, every company has a culture, and there WILL be (explicitly or implicitly) a certain pressure to fit within it. I advocate being up front about it, and choosing to make it as enjoyable as possible (given the type of work being done).

    Zappo’s has a culture that fits its mission. So does the Marines, and so does a nuclear facility. The point is – expectations of harnessed emotions are always going to be there.

    • Chris Bailey says:

      Ah, but I believe its a mistake to believe there’s only one culture within an organization. In fact, there are many but they get ignored due to the belief that there is one monolithic corporate culture. To believe that Zappos has just one culture glosses over the natural human interactions that take place in any organization.

      And here is where organizations need to evolve: monolithic corporate culture is a vestige of an older industrial command-and-control model. Rather than insisting on instant assimilation, execs and managers ought to be more thoughtful about understanding the various cultures that organically arise around them within their organization.

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  5. Deb says:

    Oh let’s be serious here – since when is it a bad idea to infuse some fun/humor/liveliness into the workplace? I’ve been a cubicle warrior and if there were no attempt at levity, I would have left sooner than I did.

    Grant – don’t you watch the commercials? Zappos is all about the fun and helping others. What did you expect – funeral dirges? Stay home, be a curmudgeon and leave me to my fun.

    This is really a nobrainer — I’m thinking Grant just wanted to stir the pot – and here we are bubbling and boiling.

    Don’t worry – be happy!

    @debworks

  6. I think what Grant is railing against is similar to what Chris said above. Some companies can take the notion of “creating culture” to an extreme, almost Stepford-like. That doesn’t engender much but resentment and awkwardness.

    But as you point out, every company HAS a culture, whether or not they’re trying to engineer it.

    To me, if Zappos employees are getting up and making a ruckus for new visitors, I’d hope that it’s because they want to, because they’re excited about the work they do. I’m wondering whose idea that was. Was it a management directive, or something that an employee group started just because? There’s a big difference between the two. And I’d be curious to poll the Zappos employees as to whether THEY feel exploited by that practice, or whether they embrace it enthusiastically.

    Nordstrom is notorious for their outstanding customer service. The idea of outstanding service is part of their culture, and they attract people who embrace and embody that. I think there’s an element of personal accountability here. If a culture that’s being thrust upon you – whether organically or otherwise – doesn’t mesh with your personal values and beliefs, you’re working in the wrong place and it’s time to go elsewhere. You DO have control over where you work.

    I think Grant is way overstating the issue of emotions being a private matter and not bringing them into the workplace (much less “controlling” them). We’re humans, aren’t we? Dealing with other humans? Today’s emergence of social media tells me that removing some of the automaton from the business engine is long overdue.

  7. Deb and Amber – good stuff. Thanks for commenting. I think I’ll bang a drum and ring a bell over your comments – because somebody told me I had to! :>}

  8. Steve – what you said that grabbed me most is:

    “When we FAIL to commandeer the abilities of our employees, and don’t encourage self-control and productivity in all areas (including imagination, task performance, and emotional engagement), then we leave the company culture to drift. Leadership of people is not simply addressing 70% of who they are. It’s tapping the entire potential of each individual and making a much greater “whole” in the process.”

    Many of us have been in jobs that do not take full advantage of our abilities and not only does it leave us feeling less fulfilled, but the company is not getting as many of the benefits that it could be! I’ve worked at several places where they made me feel as if they cared to know my goals, strengths, and natural abilities. I’ve worked at few that actually allowed, much less encouraged, me to harness those things to reach my full potential and to better the business.

  9. Debra Ellis says:

    Steve,

    Zappos aggressively works to find team members who fit the corporate culture. They go so far as to give bonuses to people that leave before training is complete. This is an effective way to find people who authentically want to participate. When the selection process is so thorough, how is it “forced” fun?

    The statement that made me cringe in Mr. McCracken’s post was “Forced fun may make the corporation more agreeable, but it also makes it less well-informed and less responsive.” Really?

    Creating a shopping experience that is fun for customers and employees reduces knowledge and service levels? How do you create the environment if you don’t know what your customers want?

    I agree with you. His logic is seriously flawed.

  10. Ashley – You’re touching on a huge concern…one that occupies a lot of my thought. Thanks for pitching in.
    Debra – spot-on!

  11. Doug Meacham says:

    OK, I’ll bite. I think its great that companies like Zappos (which is a bit unique, IMHO) have great corporate cultures which place an emphasis on having fun. The fact that they greet visitors the way they do seems to be just a part of who they want to be. Perhaps the problem with Grant’s argument was using Zappos as his example of “forced fun”.

    Perhaps if he had used a company like Walmart, the argument would have had more impact. Go spend some time in Bentonville and you’ll soon discover a culture of distrust, arrogance, fingerpointing and avoidance of blame. Yet go to one of weekly Saturday Morning meetings and you see leaders kicking off the mandatory events with calls to do the company cheer. It’s almost cult-like but for the thousands of employees that work there, it’s get in line of find yourself on a badboy list.

  12. Doug,
    Yes, indeed – if it’s some sort of regimented Let’s Pretend nonsense, then that isn’t a healthy expression of emotional engagement – it’s just manipulation and hypocrisy. And if THAT’s going on, then with Grant and Chris, I’m heading for the exit door…

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  14. Karen Swim says:

    Steve, I could not agree more with you. I read HBR too and found Grant’s comments completely miss the mark. One of the downfalls of old style management is the failure to embrace a holistic view of work. People are not assets, they are human beings and their are numerous studies that validate workplace happiness does impact workplace productivity. The platoon style leader who manages by the rules can win short term order and improve profits but it does not work in the long term.

  15. I agree with you Steve – my partner stayed at a job he hated for far too long and he regrets it. One of the key things I picked up about the company he worked for was the culture…drab, stale…lifeless. Maybe the occasional, “Pizza for lunch cause you all did so well!” but other than that, crickets…pay raises were miniscual too –

    When reading this post and the comments, vacation and paid time off bubbled to the top of my mind. Yes – where we work and the culture that is there affects us in our daily lives and our minds. If it is a culture like mentioned above, workers get bored and resentful. It has been proven time and again that happy employees means extraordinary productivity.

    I don’t know all of the details, but I think our country would be far more productive and companies would therefore earn more if vacation time and ample sick days were mandatory. How many times have you heard, “Ugh…I got this cold from a co-worker” and why? Because the co-worker didn’t have any sick days left or just couldn’t afford it. If everyone had vacation time, how could that not make for happy employees?

    More on company culture: Recently INC. magazine did a spotlight on Nick Sarillo of Nick’s Pizza and Pub – huge success story. I urge everyone to read it. if you do read it, you’ll discover that it is the culture Nick created from the ground up that gives him little employee turnover and is key to their success.

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