05/28/2013 10:51 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Can Business Be Fun?

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away... O.K., that's corny. But that's how it feels, because I'm going to talk about a performance review I had at AT&T back in the late 1980s. I had always gotten really good performance reviews. I have also always been able to see the humor in absolutely everything, including at work. I simply love to laugh.

So what happened in this performance review that I still remember it? I was told that if I kept laughing so much, I'd never make it to the executive suite. At first, I was stunned. Why wouldn't they want their employees to be happy? Then I did what I have a bad habit of doing: I said something that didn't really help the situation. In this case, my response was something on the order of, "that's what's wrong with this company; everyone takes themselves way too seriously." Yeah, it really didn't help. And you know what? I never made it to the executive suite!

No, my career didn't take a bad turn after this; I just never really fit the mold they were looking for in (what I call) the old AT&T. So I made it to a high middle management level before finally leaving to do my own consulting in 1998. I learned a lot in my 17 years with that company and I never regretted my experience there. It was a great company to work for. I just wanted to laugh more. And not have to live through so many downsizings and restructurings.

So, should we have fun in business? I think so. All research points to happy employees being productive employees. I haven't seen any research that specifically looks at the amount of laughter emanating from corporate offices, though. So maybe we are supposed to be happy quietly.

I only ever want to work in environments where you can have fun. Academia, for all its seriousness, actually does allow for that. Thank goodness, because I also try to make my classes fun for my students, since I firmly believe you also remember things more easily and for longer periods of time if you can combine fun with learning. My course evaluations are typically pretty good, so I think my students agree with me.

One last memory: Way, way back in 1982 or 1983, when I was part of a team planning that first AT&T divestiture that first broke up the Bell System (which formally took place on 1/1/84), we worked really hard, spending long hours planning how to divide up the world's foremost (at that time) telecommunications network. We were only responsible for a smallish part of the entire initiative, but we were determined to get our part right. The team laughed, and laughed a lot. You have to when you are working long hours on something as serious as that. And you know what? We got it done, and it was done well. Just look at the explosion of innovation that has occurred since the Ma Bell monopoly was broken up.

Anyone have anything to add to this? Do you laugh a lot at work? Are loud belly laughs encouraged, frowned upon, or simply ignored where you work? Does laughter help you get work done, or slow you down? And finally, should we find the humor in what we do for a living, or is it just too serious an undertaking for that?