There’s no doubt that American workers take their careers seriously. They prepare through training, education and building experience in their chosen line of work. They are committed! Meanwhile, their managers consider the workplace a haven for focus and performance. Their motto is, “Just do your job.” These folks remind me of the factory overlords of the industrial age, and for those folks, I humbly present the following:
What do you call a fish with no eyes?
If you laughed at that joke, please read the remainder of this piece. If you didn’t, click on the left arrow above to return to the previous page. If you’re still reading, here’s the spoiler alert: We can have it all. We can have focus, performance, efficiency, innovation, accountability and humor.
Barriers to Humor
Given the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of a little levity in our work environments, it’s difficult to understand why there would be any barriers at all. But there are a few reasons. First, it takes courage to put yourself out there with a joke. Imagine beginning a meeting with the following: “A penguin walks into a bar and says to the bartender, ‘Hey, have you seen my brother?’ The bartender replies, ‘I don’t know, what does he look like?’” While all of us may not agree this joke is funny, a few of you out there are bent over in laughter.
It is also difficult to clearly identify with whom you might be able to strategically use humor. Frivolity among colleagues is the easiest path; peers are generally more open to informality and often welcome the distraction. But it’s important to note that humor can be effective up and down the chain of authority. Using humor with the people who work for you is one of the most effective ways to put them at ease, and cracking a little wise with the boss has a similar effect. After all, he or she is probably under more stress than you are.
Finally, reserved or introverted leaders can struggle with how to convey a lighter, more carefree vibe. This is not a criticism of introverts; their keen intellect and dry waggishness can leave people rolling on the floor of any meeting room. For them, timing is key — but when they master it, when it happens, it’s a zinger!
The Benefits of Humor
The truth is that formal, stodgy work environments create organizations with little chance for real creativity and a team of men and women at greater risk for sick leave, job burnout and turnover — and you can count on a decline in mental and physical health. These types of environments are breeding grounds for incivility and toxicity — and it gets worse. They increase the likelihood of bullying and harassment, which have a significant impact on productivity. Bottom line? There is none, because the bottom line of the organization will suffer. Guaranteed.
The body of research supporting levity at work continues to grow. A 2012 meta-analysis of the use of humor in the workplace by researchers from the University of North Carolina and Florida International University found benefits across organizations. Managers who effectively tickled the funny bones of their team members saw dramatic improvements in job satisfaction, engagement, team cohesion and work performance. As impressively, those team members viewed their bosses in a more positive light. Another study, by researchers at the University of Florida, unearthed significant increases in workplace accomplishments and creativity.
Here are three critical facts:
Laughing makes you healthier. The physiological and psychological benefits of laughter are real. Antibody and immune levels increase, we take deeper breaths, our heart rates go up, blood flow throughout the body increases and stress hormones like epinephrine decrease. The emotional and physical response to humor make us more relaxed, which is why we also sleep better — and who couldn’t use better sleep?
Humor makes you real. Never underestimate the power of humor in building connections. When people are willing to approach you because you connect with them at the level of the funny bone, you open an avenue to organizational innovation and productivity. You also plant the seed of a trusting relationship with someone.
Humor builds productive teams. Recent research found a significant relationship between having fun at work and organizational citizenship behaviors, including loyalty to an organization and helping their colleagues. Teams that work well together are more productive than teams that are infected with pride, competition and distrust.
Think of the times you sought a service as a customer and were treated to a little fun along the way. No one in the world makes boarding an aircraft more fun than Southwest Airlines (their in-flight announcements are funny, too — like the time a flight attendant reminded everyone, at 20,000 feet, that the smoking area was outside, at the end of the starboard wing). Some of the funniest insurance commercials come from Geico. The employees who staff the help line at Apple keep you from feeling bad about erasing your hard drive. And what about the Head and Shoulders commercial featuring a memorable banter between NFL stars Patrick Mahomes and Troy Polamalu?
Think these organizations have experienced success?
One last thought on humor: It has to be real. We recognize faux attempts at humor or office fun when we witness them. Required attendance will fall far short in yielding positive results. “Mandatory fun” may even have the opposite impact, contributing to distrust and anxiety as staff politely engage.
For those of you who are still hesitant to buy into the laughter argument, take note from Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado Boulder, who provided some excellent advice in his book “The Humor Code”: It’s not about whether you are actually funny (that’s in the eye of the audience, anyway). He stresses the need to embrace the concept of “aha” funny, which is not the same as “haha” funny. Both have advantages; the latter are jokes, and the former are wit. Do whatever works for you, and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. It’s the ultimate way to level the playing field.
Step out on the edge a little, and take comfort in knowing that the people who argue that humor in the workplace is not professional are wrong. Environments enhanced by humor and joy are far more likely to result in commitment to the organization, high performance and pride in one’s work. Make it tasteful, innocent and not hurtful. You and your organization will benefit.
Why don’t bears wear shoes?
Why would they? They’d still have bear feet.
I can almost hear you laughing!