On Management

Dec. 21, 2004
A company that plays together, stays together

The headline above is a takeoff on a phrase I learned while growing up. Back then it was "The family that prays together, stays together." Perhaps both truisms are worthy of reflection in view of current trends and events. A concern for finding -- and retaining -- the most talented people seems uppermost in the minds of many company executives today. In my experience, companies that are doing well competitively tend to retain their key people because they are usually having fun -- and vice versa. One company I'm familiar with has a preponderance of younger managers. They play competitive games in their nonwork time -- soccer, paintball, softball, and the like. Some of these war-like games provide an outlet for competitive aggression that simply cannot be released at work (at least not in any socially acceptable form). Moreover, the ability to enjoy structured competition, even conflict, allows them to learn how to resolve strong differences amicably at work. When I see a group of people playing hard, following the rules, and walking off the field together -- regardless of who won -- it gives me a strong clue as to how well they will work together. Creativity, so essential to business success in these cyber-speed times, is nurtured by recreation. (Both words, after all, are derived from the Latin verb creare, "to create.") In organizations that understand the role of recreation, enhanced creativity is usually reflected in higher performance. Sociologists teach us that teams must go through several stages before real teamwork occurs. The stages are: forming, storming, norming, and then performing. The process takes time. If a team stays together, the process rapidly moves along to performing stage. Change one or two team members, however, and the whole dynamic must start over. Realizing that the people in a company are all part of a larger team -- a larger "family," in a sense -- is an important step. There is competition internally for resources, attention, promotion, and personal advancement. But the real competition is outside the company. If people keep that in mind, they will resolve internal differences and pull together to win the more important contest for customers' business. Smart companies find ways to build teamwork by creating enjoyable work environments and by encouraging recreational activities that employees can participate in together. Cynics may complain about extracurricular activities causing injuries that precipitate workers' compensation claims, but a clear "signed release" system will remedy most problems. Most people do not put a turned ankle in a company softball game into the same category as an on-the-job injury. To be successful, recreational activities must be truly voluntary. And when they are voluntary, they help to build relationships and teamwork far beyond what is possible in an office setting. For those who warn about such problems as office romances and personal disputes, my response is that those are problems that will arise regardless. Enjoying work and the people we work with ranks way up there on the hierarchy of what is important in our lives. Social interaction with people from work often can occupy more of our waking lives than any other activity -- even time spent with spouses and children. I believe that the best business teams not only work hard together, but also play together and stay together. And they beat the competition by taking care of the customer -- together. Life is too short for work not to be fun. The camaraderie that is built by being part of a highly successful, enjoyable, and fun group of co-workers lasts for a lifetime. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group, a consulting business. He lives in Knoxville. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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