Here’s What Happens When You Let Your Team Have Fun

May 17, 2016, 11:00 PM UTC
Excited business people with arms raised at window covered in adhesive notes
Excited business people with arms raised at window covered in adhesive notes
Photograph by Martin Barraud via Getty Images

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: How do you keep your team motivated? is written by Ray Carvey, executive vice president of corporate learning and international at Harvard Business Publishing.

It’s a given that highly successful companies are run by highly successful teams, and in order to succeed, those teams must be motivated. But motivating a team isn’t always easy.

Over the years, I’ve found that motivation is actually intertwined with the very foundation of a team, as well as the decisions made that govern how that team will function. From the outset, team members must be committed to a shared purpose. They also need to be in synch on how the team will work: What are the roles and the ground rules?

Once people have bought into both the why of purpose and the how of team mechanics, motivating them becomes much easier.

How important is shared purpose? Think about it for a moment. If each member of a team has a different idea about what the goal is, they’ll be working toward an individual goal. It’s certainly conceivable that, in the end, some good things will be accomplished. But it’s unlikely that any organizational goal will have been met. A team without a core purpose that’s universally understood and shared will just plain not succeed. Think Tower of Babel, because that’s what it is. No one speaks the same language, no one understands the other, everyone ends up working at cross-purposes, and the tower never gets built. Shared purpose puts the work of the team, and of each team member, in context. It guides the choice of each decision a team—as a group or individually—makes.

See also: How the Best Leaders Motivate Their Teams

Of equal importance is that each team must operate under a set of shared ground rules. These can come about by convention (i.e., “This is the way we always do things here”), or they can be hashed out as a team is forming. Gareth Jones, coauthor of Why Should Anyone Work Here?, says it best: Rules need to be both simple and agreed upon. There should never be a time when team members come to work and find that a new rule—one they’ve never heard of—has been sprung on them.

Rules may vary from team to team, and from organization to organization, but in my experience, respect for each other and open lines of communication must always be in the rulebook because they tie into so many other aspects of a strong, motivated team. Discussion and disagreement must come from a place of mutual trust and respect, especially when times are tough.

As Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile has written in The Progress Principle, there’s no greater motivator than making progress. You can’t wait for the big win. Team leaders need to be ready, willing, and able to provide team members with a strong sense of how things are going—good or bad.


Motivation comes from the small gains your team is making as they work toward their common goal. This ties back to the rules: Open communication about the progress you’re making, and even about the setbacks you’re encountering, is essential.

Not to be overlooked in a strong team is the importance of having fun. No matter what the job is, teams need to insert a little fun and a little levity into their daily work. Rewards and recognition are also important. The reward doesn’t have to be monetary, or even tangible. But people really are motivated when they know where things are headed and have received some acknowledgment of roles they’ve played toward that progress.

When all of these components are in place, you have a team that’s going to be easier to motivate. All members have bought into a shared purpose and plan. They know where they’re going and how they’re going to go about getting there—both with a clear set of roles, a clear set of rules, and candid communication about the progress they’re making.