One of my favorite business quotes is something uttered by Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft: “You can tell a lot about the long-term viability of any organization by how they handle mistakes.”

Think about it. If you constantly criticize your employees for the mistakes they make, chances are likely that they'll never make that same mistake again. That's a given.

But what do you lose in the process? You risk losing their willingness to take a risk, to use and develop their judgment, and to take the initiative to act in the best interests of the organization. You also risk losing their pride and self-esteem in their work, and the trust and respect they have in you, their manager.

Instead of building a foundation of fault and blame, Microsoft has built a foundation of fun, whether it's getting a latte from a hallway coffee cart or taking a break to shoot some basketball with colleagues. The company even encourages employees to play pranks on others.

For example:

One of the great honors at Microsoft is to have your office “sodded.” While you are away, all the furniture is removed and a wall-to-wall layer of sod is laid; then all the furniture is returned. This got to be such a popular prank that a memo was distributed that stated, “Whoever wants to sod someone's office, call this telephone number and we'll do it for you.”

Offices have been completely filled with Styrofoam peanuts or popcorn. I mean completely filled, pouring the last few buckets in through the ceiling tiles of the adjoining office.

One manager returned from a business trip to find his office door removed and wall board in its place, painted to match, including matching trim. There was no way you could tell there had ever been a door there!

Sound frivolous? Perhaps. But at Microsoft, playing pranks is a form of honoring someone. It's as if to say the person on whom you are pulling the prank is worth the group's time, effort, and creativity.

Such behavior also helps to instill a spirit of “anything goes,” which comes in handy when employees are constantly challenged to make better products and perform better — as this company has been. So next time things get a little too serious — lighten up!

Bob Nelson, PhD, is a lecturer, a president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego, and best-selling author of Please Don't Just Do What I Tell You! Do What Needs to Be Done, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, and Managing For Dummies. For more information, call (800) 575-5521, visit, or send an e-mail to