Laughing More at Work

Laughing more at work

There’s something inherently weird about reading an article that purports to seriously examine humor.  I think it’s in the bloodless effort to analyze humor with exacting, almost scientific language.  Like this from Universal Class: “Humor events are defined as ‘discrete social behaviors that a producer intentionally creates for an audiences that influences audience positive affect.’”

I mean… seriously?  Change about three words in that sentence and I’ll think we’re talking about nuclear fission.  So, I’m going to do everything in my power to avoid this science-class dissection of humor here.  We all laugh for different reasons, at different things; any effort to make ‘everyone’ or ‘every time’ statements is doomed to fail, I tend to think.

One more rough read is worth examining on the subject of humor in the workplace, before we get to the good stuff: Joel Stein’s Humor is Serious Business, for Stanford Business.  It’s got a few good points, but where it fails, it fails hard.  It’s good to remember that humor isn’t always easy—a truth made deliciously ironic given the piece in question.

Stein’s verbatim beginning: “You are not funny.  I don’t mean ‘you’ in the generic sense, but literally you personally, because you’re a businessperson.  I, however, am funny.”

I think it’s important to see someone who “gets paid to be funny” faceplant so thoroughly in the first three sentences of his ‘funny’ advice article.  The best part about this instant failure is his quick pivot to advice that includes telling you “Don’t ever punch down… Instead, punch yourself.”

We’ll come back to the core idea there (the value of self-deprecating humor), but suffice to say it doesn’t pair well with a type-written shiner from the author, right out of the gate.  Also—Stein, you literally wrote “it’s best to avoid jokes that are aggressive (roasts, teasing, mocking)” in this article.  I’m sure that, upon questioning this, I’d be told “That advice applies to the workplace, not this article,” and “It’s irony,” but… I’m pretty sure that if I get the bit and still hate it… that’s on you, guy. 

So, let’s talk about what laughing can do for you (with insights from better sources).  That discussion tends to lead us into considerably less awkward places (even if those places can be accidentally hilarious), and has actual benefits—it gets at the ‘why’ and ‘how’ your organization should employ humor.

Cathleen Fernandez quickly gets down to brass tacks on why you should want to hear laughter in your business: “It brings co-workers together, breaks the ice and barriers between people, and enlivens the atmosphere.”  This might seem obvious, but it needs to be said and agreed upon, especially in high-stress positions.  I’ve worked in positions where the day-to-day could truly get to you, and without the courageous efforts of a select few to attempt a joke, I doubt I could’ve handled the job.

I’ll add this to Fernandez’s initial thought on the role of humor—part of its power comes from the fact that, sometimes, it doesn’t necessarily even have to be that good.  In the toughest contexts (the ones where it’s needed most), even the weakest, silliest little attempt at humor can do wonders for people’s moods.  Humor is one of the few things that can get points for effort, not quality; just knowing it’s okay to laugh can sometimes bring the most laughter.

This is a long of way of explaining what Fernandez puts succinctly: “humor at the workplace decreases the chances of absenteeism and even resignation.”  Then, there’s some other, more esoteric values to a bit of workplace comedy: “…a bitter truth can be camouflaged by humor, and a secret can be kept secret by a humorous way to reveal it, without hurting or offending anyone.”

There’s a ‘first, do no harm’ principle to humor that Fernandez is suggesting here, and that’s vital to keep in mind—workplace humor, perhaps even more so than casual humor, can’t be at someone’s expense, or in any way painful.  This is why Stein’s piece is a bomb, and doesn’t get points just for ‘trying’ to be funny. 

If a joke gets a laugh from two people and hurts the feelings of a third, the situation is not some kind of ‘net win’—that kind of joke sows distrust and hostility, sometimes the first time it happens.  This is certainly true of sexist, racist, or otherwise prejudiced ‘jokes’.

Of course, humor doesn’t just happen internally in business—Charles Rathman reminds us to be funny in customer-facing situations, such as the sales cycle, as well.  Making your customer laugh can make your sales call a “little vacation in the middle of their day” instead of an unwelcome interruption, and quickly build rapport.

Rapport-building helps people “relax with you” and become “more likely to share the pain points that will allow you to progress towards a successful close.”  As you progress past first impressions into persuasion to buy, Rathman points to a study that shows that type of humor starts to matter more.  Irony and self-deprecation, specifically, help by “making the person making a proposition more vulnerable and less threatening.”

It can be a tough sell to say “be more vulnerable in your sales cycle,” but it actually makes perfect sense: what’s more off-putting than a self-certain, full-force salesperson when you’re unsure of the value of their product?  Humor can level the playing field, giving power back to the prospect and showing them that by laughing at yourself, you don’t see yourself some kind of master tactician who won’t leave without a deal.  Almost all of us would rather buy from someone who makes us laugh by kidding about their own fallibility.

So, as you may or may not be surprised to learn, humor is a good thing, and not just on weekends!  As long as you do the simple calculus of what kind of humor to employ and when to do so, you’ll see benefits that range from increased employee loyalty and camaraderie, quicker and stronger rapport in the sales cycle, and more.  Certain kinds of humor should be avoided, and some favored in certain contexts.

I think that, instinctively, almost all of us know we’d benefit from laughing more.  The only real shift in mindset that we need is where and when that laughing should take place.

Does your workplace encourage humor?  How so?  Do you think that it ever causes a problem, or is it consistently welcome?  How might you inject more humor into your workday?