Organisational leaders need to stop advocating ‘fun’ as being at odds with Professionalism and view ‘fun’ as an important management tool on the journey to accepting change. With millennials preferring workplace cultures which are ‘fun’ to work in, how fast can companies change to attract new talent?

The dreaded “Productivity” issue

The UK is facing a crisis of poor productivity, being among the lowest in the G7 group of industrial nations. (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/apr/05/weak-productivity-leaves-uk-trailing-other-g7-nations) Lack of employee engagement is a major factor. Leaders in organisations have started to measure employee engagement in their organisations to get an indication about how their employees feel about their organisations and their leadership. The results by Gallup (http://www.gallup.com/businessjournal/163130/employee-engagement-drives-growth.aspx) are not looking promising. Low -grade stress, absenteeism and burn-out are more common than previously thought.

Managers are increasingly being expected to make changes to improve engagement among their employees. Considered earlier to be the perview of HR, managers are now having to navigate through the mess of not just encouraging autonomy in the workplace but trying to wipe out decades of trust eroded by a culture of control. The requirement of a 180 degree turn in behaviour is putting undue stress on managers especially when command-and-control management role-play has been the major value driver in organisations and individual performance.

Incoherent identities: The authenticity challenge

Employees in a top-down controlling management structure strive to behave like their managers. This is because career progression is judged on displaying a level of emulation, a sign of ingrained values. (http://www.businessinsider.com/managers-hire-people-who-remind-them-of-themselves-2014-5?IR=T) This means learning to speak with a similar tone and jargon and fitting in with a culture which has expectations of similar behaviours. Everyone shares in the same identity.

A change in behaviour towards improving engagement could seem like role-play brought on by a requirement of the top-down productivity strategy. Learning how to ‘coach’ instead of ‘instruct’ is a skill which can be understood intellectually. But engaging with new behaviours emotionally in practice can be a challenge, with incumbent managers’ benevolence appearing fake and concern appearing disingenuous.

With no clarity about how their new behaviours are being viewed and considering their history with incumbent employees, a manager can feel like an imposter wearing a mask. The expectation of reciprocal behaviours from employees who do not share in the new values can become a source of stress.

The wider the gap between the behavioural “masks”, the greater is the perception which psychologists call “Cognitive Dissonance”. (http://ergonomicsindesign.com/2016/01/cognitive-dissonance/) Low-grade work stress grows with the widening of this gap, challenging both personal values and individual identity. The inability to gain coherence in one’s self-identity is like living in two worlds and this inability to cope manifests itself as irritability, dysfunctional behaviour and chronic fatigue costing organisations in the form of absenteeism, incidences of bullying and attrition.

Fun; the new management social tool

Just because the benefits of an ‘engaged culture’ appear attractive to top management, it does not necessarily mean that incumbent cultures will readily accept the imposed outcome of a perceived ‘unprofessional’ and ‘unconventional’ way of working. The main problem of unacceptance seldom lies in the outcome. Many change initiatives fail because of the way change is carried out. The barrier lies in organisational structures that have become laden with the formality of professionalism, creating fixed mindset behaviours and skeptics.

‘Fun’ creates the impetus for inclusion and participation due to its nature of being a positive experience. Organisational leaders need to stop advocating ‘fun’ as being at odds with professionalism and view ‘fun’ as an important management tool on the journey to accepting change. Managers and employees must be encouraged to have fun together, making changes or else it won’t matter….. because nothing will truly feel positive about the new changed situation.

Fun nurtures creativity in finding solutions. As children we were at our creative best when we were excited building and breaking things and finding how things work. To avoid ‘fun’ leading to negative events, interventions need to have a well-defined purpose and facilitated using a collaborative coaching approach. Everyone being involved and communicating is a great way to develop trust and managers can test out their new coaching skills.  There is also another strategic reason to support a fun-filled work culture.

The talent jungle

Aspirational lifestyles, a sense of belonging to online communities, the next hottest gadget or service…..millennials have been having fun being entrepreneurs and innovators. The socially-driven connected lifestyle which millennials have nurtured since their early days is not aligned to the outdated job structures and the restrictions of top-down management discipline. Organisations, under the banner of “Individual performance” in conventional task-based roles, discourage social interaction and increase employee isolation resulting in a ‘present-but-not-fully-there’ culture.

Millennials are witness to the toll that conventional jobs have had on their parent’s generation and it serves as a salutary lesson about what to avoid. Conventional task-based jobs are appearing more unattractive for millennials, especially when wage growth is at its lowest in decades.

With millennials preferring workplace cultures which are ‘fun’ to work in, how fast can companies change to attract new talent and increase the level of productivity in incumbent task-based jobs?

The ‘fun’ way to change

Fun is the social glue which brings inclusion and creates participation. It is one of the strongest but overlooked communication tools for change. Creating a fun-filled socially agile work environment could be the magic bullet to energise your workforce to higher engagement and productivity, perhaps even setting organisations apart for attracting millennial talent.

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Vikram Millns is an Innovation and Transformation Consultant. With a long career in innovation, he helps people and teams re-engage with their organisation through the development of an innovative mindset.He has an MBA, two Scientific Masters degrees and has 20 years of experience working with Startups, SME’s and large corporate cultures.