The Magazine

Are We Having Fun Yet?

The infantilization of corporate America.

Sep 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 01 • By MATT LABASH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As I contacted them for input to this story, their pain was evident. They are smart, competent, creative people with highly refined senses of humor--fully formed adults. Yet they're unable to escape the condescending infantilization of their workplaces, the coercive "fun," the forced-march through the land of clenched-teeth joviality that so often takes place under the dreaded guise of "team -building." One pal, who works for a large financial concern, tells me darkly, "My role here is largely 'gleetivities' oriented. We're actually planning a group event that will involve 'conference bikes.' It's a rickshaw-related transportation option focused on tourists. It's a bike with five seats in a circle. Should be completely ridiculous."

Another friend in the information technology sector lays it bare on background, since frowning on "funtivities" is considered very bad form by upper management. I'll let him have the floor. God knows he's earned it:

Every typical corporate geek groans when we have to participate in these outings or events. I've done jet-pilots, geocaching, a lot of "war-gaming," all in the name of team-building. The truth is, if they are done well they are a lot of fun, despite the pessimism that invariably precedes them. If they are done poorly, they are bad beyond your wildest journalistic dreams. I've had a few that have made me want to buy a VW bus and [hit the road]. There was one that was just cancelled where we had to do jazz improvisation in support of team-building. Everybody was groaning big-time on that one. Can you imagine standing up in front of 70 directors playing f--ing bongo drums? It got cancelled because of a firm re-org, not because it was ludicrous. But that was one where even the dumber people who actually enjoyed Forrest Gump were complaining about how gay it was.

Since the advent of modern management consulting, a chapter that arguably began with the founding of the industry's 800-lb gorilla, McKinsey & Company, in the 1920s, the business world has cleaved into two halves: Those paid to work for a living, and those paid to come to your office, take lots of notes, run up expenses on your dime, and then file reports in impenetrable consultant-ese describing your shortcomings--how, for instance, you failed to incentivize your brand pyramid and now need to drill down on the granularity of your mind-share while on-ramping your knowledge-process outsourcing.

There is, of course, a consultant for everything these days. Professional consultant-basher Martin Kihn, who is himself a consultant, and who wrote House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, writes of everything from flag consultants to compost consultants to Satanic consultants who don't actually worship Lucifer (consultants tend not to believe in anything). So it stands to reason that with the new core value of fun on the ascent, there would be fun consultants. They don't have a trade association yet, and they go by all sorts of different names, usually with "fun" as a prefix (funsultants, funcilitators, etc). But if you had to distill what they do in one word, "fun" would be your best bet.

A considerable corpus of literature on their discipline is amassing. I use the word "literature" loosely, to mean a series of often ungrammatical double-spaced sentences put on paper, slapped between festively colored covers, and sold to mouth-readers with too much discretionary income. While most business books, according to Kihn, are written on about a 7th-grade level (there are exceptions like Who Moved My Cheese? for Teens that are written on a 5th-grade level), the funsultant literature regresses all the way back to primary school. Since we all forget to play as adults, as funsultants repeatedly tell us, they seem intent on speaking to us as though we're children.

Their books are thick with instances of how successful businessmen keep things loosey-goosey at work. Forget industriousness, talent, and know-how--the wellspring of employees' satisfaction, creativity, and prosperity is fun. In Mike Veeck's Fun Is Good, the cofounder of Hooters Restaurants reveals, "I don't know if we could've survived without humor," whereas to the untrained eye it looked like Buffalo Chicken Strips served with large sides of waitress's breasts were the secret to his success. Whatever. "Fun" is the cure-all for anything that ails your company.