One of my central themes is “I know your business could be doing better.” How can I know that?

There is a common symptom that indicates a lot of room for improvement at any business. Once I see this symptom, I know the business could be doing a lot better. What is tragic, the symptom is rarely recognized and if identified, seldom seen as a problem. And yet, this one thing is as serious as cancer. It could be killing your business.

Here it is. Is it fun to go to work at your business? Would most of your people say they have fun at work? If not, your business is missing some huge opportunities.

When the fun stops, the rigidity kicks in. Thinking becomes less wide ranging and more designed to please management than to actually improve the business. Stress rises.

I have been at businesses where the fun has stopped. There’s tension. Communication dries up because no one wants to bring up an idea sure to face rejection. Everything takes longer than necessary to accomplish. An “asshole” layer gets added to everything. (Asshole layer: Extra approvals, more justification for the obvious, pleading for basic supplies, irrational arguments over common sense ideas, the “Devil’s Advocate” flourishes)

When the fun stops, relationships break down. People who should be working as a team become competitors for what is perceived as limited resources or attention. You know what it looks like. In fact, you are probably in a business where the fun has died. The problem is common. As I wrote above, it is not seen as serious at a majority of businesses. Foolish managers will smirk as they read this—if they get this far.

It is difficult to quantify the exact toll the lack of workplace fun takes on a business. That’s why it is so hard to convince management of the seriousness. Management is more concerned about keeping order than having fun.

When I bring up the topic of fun at work, two fears strike management. First, they fear a loss of control. Many managers envision fun at work as jugglers and fire eaters in the hallways. No, having fun doesn’t mean that you turn the workplace into a circus.

Cost is the other concern. Bringing fun back to the workplace doesn’t mean stocking a full-service lounge and game room. In fact, fun doesn’t have to cost a cent. How much does it cost to give a little recognition or encouragement?

By the way, if you are wondering where to start bringing fun back, think recognition. Simply taking a minute to thank someone for their work will go a long way.

I’ll write more about this in 2013. I believe the U.S. economy could turn around on fun. I believe that fun could give U.S. businesses a global advantage. They certainly aren’t going to introduce fun into Chinese factories any time soon.

If you want ideas, we should talk. Give me a call. It will be fun to talk with you.

Chris Reich, TeachU