The Economist this week (Sept 20) published an interesting editorial called “Down with Fun: The Depressing Vogue for Having Fun at Work.

At a high level: fun is great, but FUN by MBO is (oxy) moronic. It’s an interesting perspective. As someone who passionately knows that fun DOES matter at work, it’s also important to put *fun* into a proper context. Granted, parts of the editorial were certainly tongue-in-cheek, and I appreciate that! Yet, it also raises some key questions about the role of fun in the workplace.

First, the Economist piece is spot-on on the idea that fun cannot be a co-opted, mandated by “MBO” kind of thing. Fun, by its nature, is organic, authentic, and often very spontaneous. It has to be – that’s its nature. As a very creative and wise friend said to me recently, “any company that has a fun committee is not a fun place to work.” Amen, sister! Fun committees are often parodied and misguided, “too little, too late” management tools aimed at fixing morale. Thus, they are great Dilbert fodder. Or Office Space. Then, there’s the fun quotes on corporate t-shirts. If management sucks the fun out of the environment, they can’t be tasked with the goal of getting it back. Moreover, fun is not an easy “fix” solvable with picnics and beer busts. Fun has to be an authentic part of the culture everyday, and not something saved for 5PM on a Friday.

Make no mistake, though, fun matters at work. There is a higher level of engagement among people who do have fun at work. However, fun may not be the ultimate work objective for all people – but it IS a conduit for creativity. When we are having fun, we are tapping into our creative brain, and that is incredibly powerful for innovation. Some of the most creative people and companies I have worked with do value fun. This is no coincidence. They belong together. I don’t know about you – but if I’m working my behind off, I better damn well be having fun! Fun and engagement are symbiotic for lots of people.

Yet, there is evidence to illustrate that at a macro-level, we all generally value the same things in our work. Dan Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has it right at a fundamental level. Ultimately, people want autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work. When they have those things, they feel creative and they have fun. Fun goes hand in hand with getting to use your talents and feel that you make a difference. No amount of FUN by MBO will ever compensate for an environment where people lack autonomy, mastery, and purpose, lack respect and recognition, and do not have a workplace that treats them as valuable. Cheap attempts to create fun committees in crappy environments are like putting band aids on hemorrhages! Employees see right through it. Hollow attempts at corporate fun when the corporate culture devalues and dis-empowers people will (and should!) fail.

Yet, when people are sincerely valued and empowered in the corporate culture, fun can truly be a credible and creative part of any environment. Creativity is fun – if you are doing it right. Do you know any creative and engaged people who hate what they do? I don’t. They ARE having fun because they are EMPOWERED. Empowerment is the key. Instead of asking how can we have more fun at work, perhaps companies need to ask, how do we design the work so individuals feel empowered? Then, fun can be a part of the landscape.

Everyone has the ability to be creative. Creativity does not mean artistry. It simply means to create from nothing and there are many ways to be creative. I don’t buy the “only 20% of employees” are creative argument this article advances. However, it is correct to say that everyone has different creative potential and different levels of ENGAGEMENT where they are actually applying it.

Consequently, corporate attempts at keeping fun a part of the culture at work can be helpful. It is important that, as companies grow and evolve, fun is valued, and people feel “safe” enough to have some fun in the way they define it. The problem is when companies try to dictate what fun should look like for everyone. And it’s different for every group. 3M and other companies, for example, have the famous 15% rule – letting people explore “their own interests” for 15% of the work week. That’s the point: to let people determine what is meaningful and fun for themselves.

While there should be support for it, fun must also remain organic. And that is best left up to departments that understand their own sub-culture and what people in that group value. It is the only way a culture stays authentically FUN. If the culture sincerely empowers people to be creative in their own way, than keeping fun/levity alive at the corporate level as a deeply-held value is great – just let people determine what fun looks like to them. An empowering culture of fun does get results! But, please keep the “corporate-mandated” and corporate-defined fun out of the picture.

In June I wrote on a very similar topic: