This simple parable has sparked a grassroots movement across corporate America to have more fun at work.

As the story goes, years ago, an ordinary worker at the Pike Place Fish Market on Seattle's waterfront decided he was going to take a new approach to his job. He wanted his workplace to become world famous and decided to shoot for that goal by, very simply, having fun.

His idea caught on with the other fishmongers — and with the business world. Today, thousands of people come to the market to watch Pike Place Fish workers toss fish around and have fun with shoppers.

Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results (Hyperion, 2000) tells the tale of Mary Jane Ramirez, a disheartened corporate department head who discovers the have-fun-at-work philosophy practiced by workers at Pike Place Fish. Co-authors Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen track her journey as she transforms her department from a “toxic energy dump” into a vibrant, more productive place to work. Since its release a year ago, Fish! has appeared on major best-seller lists, is in its 12th printing, and has sold more than 250,000 copies.

Lundin is a graduate business school professor at the University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis, a filmmaker, and a professional speaker; Paul is senior vice president with the Ken Blanchard Cos., Escondido, Calif.; and Christensen, also a filmmaker, is CEO of ChartHouse Learning Corp., Minneapolis. Corporate Meetings & Incentives recently reeled in Lundin and Paul to talk about Fish! (Christensen was unavailable — reportedly, he'd gone fishing.)

CMI: You dedicate your book to “the millions of workers who relish the thought of having a more playfully productive atmosphere at work.” How can companies help make this happen?

“Some companies haven't figured out that they shouldn't manage to the bottom line, but for their employees.”

Paul: What companies have to do is set guidelines or boundaries within which employees can try things. They also shouldn't punish people for taking initiative. Too often, companies say, “You can do this or try that,” but when employees try it, the company slams them.

CMI: You talk about the playfulness of Pike Place Fish workers throwing fish around as they have fun at their job and engage their customers. What's the corporate equivalent of playful “fish-throwing”?

Lundin: We've seen people do all kinds of things to lighten up their workplace. It could be a Hat Day or a Pet Day. Whatever does it for you is your “fish-throwing.” The only limit is the imagination. The simplest thing to do — and it makes both the giver and the recipient feel good — is a smile and a few kind, sincere words to your co-worker.

Paul: If they're allowed the freedom, people will come up with all kinds of creative equivalents to fish-throwing. We did a seminar at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, and one of the nurses said, “We can't throw fish, so let's throw love.”

CMI: Describe the four ingredients (Choose Your Attitude, Play, Make Their Day, and Be Present) you cite as crucial to making work fun.

Lundin: The Play aspect is simple: Basically, we're saying that life is serious enough, so let's try to find some lightheartedness, some playfulness — it makes a big difference. Make Their Day means to come out of yourself and find someone — customers or co-workers — to do something fun for or with.

Paul: As for Be Present, the easiest way to describe it is to pay attention to the people around you and to “be there,” mentally as well as physically, for them. Choose Your Attitude is the cornerstone of the Fish! philosophy. It's about understanding that you have a choice. We say you can choose to be grouchy, and that's OK, but you'll find most people, once they're aware they have a choice, won't choose grouchy.

CMI: Why aren't more companies jumping on the “have fun at work” bandwagon?

Paul: Some companies haven't figured out that they shouldn't manage to the bottom line or for their investors, but that they should manage for their employees. They're focused on the wrong people.

CMI: Here's a devil's advocate question: I'm the CEO of a major corporation with a less-than-sterling reputation in terms of employee satisfaction. What evidence can you give me that once the Fish! principles are implemented, there's great potential for improved customer service — and company profits?

Paul: I'd refer you to a study that appeared in Culture and Performance, which surveyed 207 companies' performances from 1977 to 1988. The companies were categorized as those whose culture paid attention to employees and those that focused more on the bottom line. Those companies that were employee-sensitive saw a revenue increase of 682 percent over those years; those that didn't saw an increase of 199 percent. Same thing for stock performance: The “good” companies saw an increase of 901 percent; the “not so good” ones a 74 percent increase. The good companies had a 756 percent net income increase, the others only 1 percent. Employee-sensitive companies — such as Merck, IBM, and 3M, examples cited in that study — always look to improve corporate culture with their employees in mind.

CMI: I'm that same CEO, and you've convinced me that the Fish! philosophy works. How do I begin?

Lundin: When people ask me where to start, I tell them with the people at entry level. To me, they're the most important people in any company.

Paul: Ask your people — they'll tell you. It wasn't the owner of Pike Place Fish who got the idea to have fun; it was an ordinary employee.

CMI: Is it possible for employees to convince management that the Fish! philosophy not only makes them better workers, but will improve company performance (as happened in the book)? In other words, can there be a “trickle up” effect?

Paul: The beauty of the Fish! philosophy is that it's a grassroots movement. Single businesses, departments, even individuals, have adopted the Fish! philosophy, as opposed to it coming from the top down as a strategy. I think that eventually we'll see more corporations implement it, but it's been a grassroots thing so far. And yes, we have seen the philosphy trickle up and eventually be adopted on a companywide basis.

Bill Gillette is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. He is a frequent contributor to CMI.