Management: Laugh in the office is a bonus: A new book says the best companies are happy families. Neasa MacErlean reports

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BUSINESSES, like families, are often rather unhappy, while only a few seem to run along in contentment.

In Life and How to Survive It, the follow-up to the hugely successful Families and How to Survive Them, John Cleese and his former psychotherapist Robin Skynner explore the nature of happiness in the workplace, politics and other human structures.

It is in the workplace, they conclude, that the biggest advances are being made to motivate and fulfil the humans involved. 'Businesses are ahead because of their essential pragmatism,' said Cleese, but he added that many of them still had a way to go.

The unhappiest companies and individuals tend to be those preoccupied by profit, the book says, while the happiest - and often most financially successful - are those with aims that focus beyond the bottom line.

On this analysis, much of Britain's strike-ridden industrial history can be attributed to a narrowness of management vision. Good companies consult and take regular soundings from their employees. 'If you don't do that, all they can do is ask for more money - because money comes to represent the one way of getting back at these people who aren't treating them as human beings,' said Cleese.

The former Monty Python star and Dr Skynner believe that what they are preaching is 'relatively revolutionary'. They introduce a range of management theories, all of which stem from a recognition of the human beings behind the corporate entity.

They talk about humour as a tool of management, for example, and argue the proposition that women are better managers than men. They talk about encouraging mavericks, the importance of fun, the benefits of 'spiritual' corporate values, and the need to accept 'a reasonable proportion of mistakes' while striving for excellence.

In a chapter entitled 'Look Mummy, I'm Chairman of International Consolidated', Skynner wrote: 'A deprived child who has learnt to cope with very little support may survive better in a tough situation, like working for Robert Maxwell, than a person who has had it easy in an affectionate, affluent family. And in an organisation that's run dishonestly, it may be an advantage to be able to lie and cover your tracks.' Just as children will inherit the values of their parents, they say, employees will often adapt the mores - good and bad - of their bosses.

As do good parents, the top managers in good companies give their staff freedom to develop creatively, but exert tight control when necessary - on the purse strings, for example. Good managers also create an atmosphere of trust. Woolworths, for example, now accepts that it made a mistake when it issued pocketless uniforms to staff.

Mavericks, they argue, should he cultivated, not just tolerated. 'Healthy companies have tremendous respect for individuality and independence,' wrote Dr Skynner. 'The leaders themselves are often chosen precisely for their unconventional - indeed, their convention-challenging - qualities.'

If mavericks are associated with creativity, a lively atmosphere is seen as an ideal stimulant for the development of creative ideas. 'People become much more creative in an atmosphere like this,' writes Cleese. 'When we are confident, we become more playful - and I'm entirely sure that playfulness and creativity are indistinguishable.' He goes on to analyse the serious purposes of humour - the fresh perspective it provides, for example, and its contribution to team-building.

'I remember Jonathan Miller saying that true humour produces great intimacy,' he says. 'The best humour emphasises the similarities between people, not the differences.'

Other hallmarks of well-balanced companies include direct and open communications, a dislike of bureaucracy (a barrier to communications), an ability to deal with change and often, as with the Rowntrees and the Frys, a deeply founded, even spiritual, concern for the welfare of the staff and the wider community.

The co-authors are committed to the idea that women are the better managers. Cleese's own company, Video Arts, is run by two women. In an interview to mark the launch of Life and How to Survive It, he told the Independent: 'Women believe almost intrinsically in a more co-operative approach - except that they sometimes get dragooned into being a Thatcher by the people who think they are not really tough enough.'

Cleese and Skynner are passionate in their message - that the future of management lies in recognising the importance, the dignity, the rights and creative potential of all staff.

'Life and How to Survive It' is published by Methuen at pounds 16.99

(Photograph omitted)