Used effectively and positively, humor can improve the workplace in many ways. Employees who laugh regularly are physically and emotionally healthier, not to mention more productive and creative. And let’s face it – it’s more fun to work with people who bring joy and laughter to work than those who suck the life out of everyone around them.
As a comedian and corporate stress management expert, I’ve been teaching organizations how to blend humor and business for almost fifteen ten years. During that time, I’ve found that many of the tricks comedians use to find the funny in everyday life can be easily and successfully used in the business world. Here are some strategies for using humor at work:
1. Accentuate the positive. In order to have a positive influence your humor must not be derogatory or divisive. Prevent negative humor from creeping into the workplace by sticking to (try duct tape or those yellow sticky pads) the following rules:
• Use your own funny stories. Humor that comes from personal experience will be perceived as less threatening to others. Here’s an example: a company vice president broke her toes by running into a table at home. That wasn't a very exciting explanation, so when co-workers asked how she'd injured herself, she replied instead, "I was trying to climb the corporate ladder and I slipped.!”
• Focus humor on situations and circumstances not on individuals. Laughing about having to work too much overtime or lack of parking is much less likely to be hurtful than laughing at a specific person.
• Poke fun up, not down. All humor has an element of “making fun,” and if people in positions of more power make fun of those with less power, feelings will be hurt and detrimental consequences ensue. Managers should never make employees the brunt of jokes.
2. Honor humor diversity. We all find different things funny; these differences may divide along gender, age, occupation, culture, and even region of the country where an individual was raised. Studies show, for one, that men and women respond best to much different kinds of humor, with men preferring what might be called “action humor” (e.g., “The Three Stooges” or Farrelly Brothers movies), while women usually prefer “relationship humor” (e.g., Meg Ryan romantic comedies.) Encourage and respect everyone’s sense of humor, as well as their sensitivities.
3. Obey the rules of comedy. There are simple ways anyone can make something funnier, whether they’re retelling something funny that happened to them on the way to work or trying to c
• Rule #1: Universality. Everyone in the room should be able to understand the situation, the context, and the emotions behind the story. If you are in a meeting full of accountants and you keep using references to quantum physics, you’re violating the rule of universality. No wonder everyone’s eyes are glazed over like so many donuts.
• Rule #2: Be as specific and visual as possible. The better you can create a picture, the more engaged everyone will be in your presentation. It’s not an office, it’s a 7-foot x 7-foot cubicle wedged between the women’s bathroom and the elevator. It’s not a car, it’s an orange Yugo with no front door and a bumpersticker that says “Honk if you see things falling off.”
• Rule #3: When dealing with topics that are still painful to the group (e.g., lay-offs at work, new management, budget cuts, etc.), use exaggeration to keep things in perspective. Here’s an example: “Things have been really stressful at work, what with the new CEO, the changes in our job description, and the dress code that requires everyone to wear prison uniforms on Wednesdays.”
• Rule #4: It happened today (or at the latest, yesterday.) Use present tense verbs to give your story the feeling of being topical and urgent.
• Rule #5: The “K” rule. Words with the “k” sound are funnier to most Americans than other words. Next time you tell that story involving the beige Honda, make it a crème-colored Cadillac and see what happens.
4. Try comedy brainstorming. A great way to encourage humor in meetings is to make searching for the funny part of the agenda. A group who can find the humor together will reap all kinds of wonderful benefits – lightening tension, enhancing morale, and increasing blood flow to everyone’s brains so that they can think more clearly and creatively when they return to their “real jobs. Possible comedy brainstorming techniques include Top 10 Lists, writing funny songs and skits about specific job issues, and creating company bumper stickers.
5. Think inside the toy box. When we think of visual aids that are appropriate for meetings, we generally limit our thinking to overheads, Power Point presentations, slides, etc. But there are so many other ways to add power and laughter to staff meetings and trainings. Instead of thinking “Meeting,” think “Show and Tell.” What can you use to make your point in a humorous way? Hats, for example, can be used to distinguish between different jobs. A skeleton is a good way to demonstrate a bare bones budget. Hand puppets are great for simulating a debate. A Crazy 8 Ball is a fun way to pretend to make important decisions.
6. Play around. Five-year old kids laugh out loud approximately 400 times a day, while adults only laugh 15. Much of kids’ laughter comes out of spontaneously funny situations that arise when they’re at play. Unfortunately we adults don’t play much and, as a result, we miss out on all the great opportunities for finding the funny through play. A great way to integrate play into meetings, staff retreats, etc., is to use tried-and-true improv exercises. These fun activities allow everyone a chance to be funny to use not only their minds, but also their bodies. Some of my favorite improv games to use at work include:
• Three-Headed Brain – three people stand at the front of the room and answer questions from the group using only one word apiece. Together, they form complete sentences. I once had someone ask “Why can’t we have casual day every day?” and the Three-Headed Brain answered “Because we don’t want to see you in a Speedo when all your shorts are dirty.”
• Slide Show – this is not only a fun game, but a good way for trainers to improve their ability to think on their feet. Four volunteers are needed. Three serve as the “slides” and one is the presenter. The presenter will begin to talk about something (for example, a recent trip to Ixtapa) and while doing so, the three others will arrange their bodies in a funny way that has nothing to do with what the presenter is talking about. After a few sentences, the presenter turns around and must continue to present, integrating the “slide” into the presentation. He/she then turns to the audience again, and the process is repeated three or four times. Once with a group of accountants (yes, even accountants can be silly!), the presenter said she and her family had learned a new exotic dance. When she turned around, the three performers were all lying down in a heap. She continued, “As you can see by the slide, it was exhausting, but we did get to know the natives much, much better!”
• Good, Bad, Worst – this improv game needs three volunteers who serve as a panel of experts -- one expert gives good advice, the second gives bad advice, and the third gives the worst advice possible to questions posed by the group. For example, once I had an audience ask, “We’re picking out new carpet for the office, but we can’t agree on a color? What do you suggest?” The good advice was: “Choose a carpet committee and have them narrow the choices down to two. Then put it to an office-wide vote.” The bad advice was: “Let everyone choose the carpet for their own offices. So what if you end up with red and gold cut pile next to purple shag?” The worst advice was: “Forget the carpet and install Astroturf. If it’s good enough for the NFL, it’s good enough for the office.”
Comedians look at life through Groucho glasses, trying to find the funny in everything. By using some of the techniques they use to squeeze humor from everyday disasters, you can help lighten things up at work.