Mandatory Fun Isn’t Fun (Here’s What to Do Instead)

Mandatory fun is something we’ve all experienced at work.  Although it usually starts out with honorable intentions, research shows that mandatory fun can be quite, well, unfun.

Research from Barbara Plester and Kerr Inkson’s book Laugh out Loud – A User’s Guide to Workplace Humor suggests that overly-curated events can be less fun and intimidating, especially when C-level and people in positions of power are the only ones creating and cultivating the fun. Think of the Dunder Mifflin basketball game on The Office TV show.

Team building events that are fun are good.  Team building events that get input from different stakeholders, develop and discuss humor boundaries, and connect the fun with a learning outcome and improve culture are even better.

How do you create awesome experiences without the mandatory fun vibes? Here is what we recommend:

1) Get input from different stakeholders
Intentionally reach out to employees from different groups to brainstorm an inclusive activity or event.  Talking to people who may be less likely to speak up or participate involves both introverts and extroverts (ie all the ‘verts’ at work).

2) Develop and discuss humor boundaries
Create humor boundaries that outline where humor and friendly banter slips into insults, bullying, or unwanted behavior.  Discuss these boundaries openly with the unofficial humor gatekeepers of every organization – the middle managers.  Follow the classic newspaper rule: is the humor, joke or fun event appropriate for the front page of the newspaper?  If so, then it’s cool to do at work, if not, then leave it out. 

If someone crosses a boundary or makes you uncomfortable, you could try saying something like, “I appreciate the humor, and I know you didn’t mean it like that, but [this aspect] made me feel unvalued or excluded.”

3) Connect the fun with a learning outcome to improve culture 
In addition to doing a fun activity, brainstorm the takeaways you want employees to have after the event and use humor as a trigger to discuss these learning outcomes.  When a group laughs, it catches everyone’s attention and gets people to listen – that means they’re open to new ideas. 

What takeaways might the activities bring? The learning outcomes could be giving others the benefit of the doubt, making time to connect with coworkers on a personal level even when we’re all busy, or any of the benefits from our list of 10 Benefits of Humor for Organizations.

Using Humor to Create Psychological Safety
Rod A Martin also points out in his book, The Psychology of Humor, An Integrated Approach, “play is characterized by a protective frame, which is a psychological safety zone”.  Every form of play has protective boundaries that gives people psychological safety.  Humor is the same, so by creating humor boundaries, a company creates a culture of psychological safety, where employees can be themselves and take risks in a safe environment. 

Checkout our blogpost on Team Building activities that are not Awful for some more tips and tricks and here are some of our favorite Team Building activities for Virtual teams that are actually fun! Enjoy!

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