I’m convinced that people who have fun at work are more innovative, as well as happier. I don’t have any big scientific studies to prove this, but in my considerable business experience, I haven’t seen many successes come out of a group of fearful pessimists or unhappy people.
As I was looking through the literature, I did find evidence that many strong business leaders, like John D. Rockefeller, knew how to laugh at themselves. Humble leaders with this trait seem to create cultures that don't take themselves too seriously; cultures willing to take risks; cultures capable of creating and supporting a greater number of ideas.
Current popular startups, like Foursquare, with their break-up music and "Slow Jam Fridays" are a model of this new fun world. I can postulate several reasons why laughing and having fun at work might be linked with creativity and innovation. Here are a few:
Escape the inhibitions. Laughing tends to remove inhibitions. Under the spell of inhibition, people feel limited and stuck. This is what we refer to when we say “thinking outside the box”. Encourage everyone to be open to new ideas and solutions without setting limiting beliefs. Innovation is more about psychology than intellect.
Willing to make mistakes. People who take themselves too seriously are afraid to be seen failing. Failure while having fun is not usually seen as life-threatening. Expect that some ideas will fail in the process of learning. Rather than treating the mistakes as failures, think of them as fun experiments.
Reset to a positive attitude. Under the pressure of a difficult problem, or if you are stuck on something, nothing innovative is likely to emerge. Do something fun to shift your thoughts back to the positive. Come back to the work problem with a fresh and more creative mind.
Productive group activity. In teams, people feed off each other. A “downer” in a group takes the whole group down, whereas a fun person can bring the whole group to a more productive and innovative plane. This allows the group to “suspend disbelief” and really brainstorm new alternatives.
Likely to be seen. Successful people surround themselves with people they enjoy and respect. If you are unhappy, or take yourself too seriously, you are less likely to get the attention and trust of people who can make a difference, or even recognize your innovative ideas.
Likely to be heard. Communication effectiveness is the final hurdle for creativity and innovation. No matter how great your idea is, it won’t happen if it is not heard. People like to listen to fun people, and they close their mind to all the rest. If you want to be heard, write down the message and deliver it in a positive tone.
Be perceived as a leader. By definition, people who project negativity are not going to be perceived as leaders. Nobody will charge a hill led by someone who says it can’t be done, or someone who emphasizes the risk of death.
Some people seem to want to make fun an enemy of business. I believe you will accept that premise only at your own peril. Fun is all about creativity, innovation, play, experimentation, progress, and seeing real things come to life. The most innovative people don’t see any dichotomy between work and fun.
So I encourage you to go out of your way this season to nurture fun at work, as well as passion and motivation. Learn to pay attention to laughter. Where there is laughter, there is an idea that holds people's interest. If you don’t take yourself too seriously, the pleasant by-product is that work becomes more enjoyable, and your innovative side will be more visible.