humor at work

If you’re a father, I hope you enjoyed Father’s Day and were treated like a king. Over the years I’ve tried to get our three kids to give me the gift of laughing at all my Dad Jokes for just that one day. Still no luck. I think they’re afraid of pulling a groan muscle.

Our daughter, Vanessa, gave me a Father’s Day card years ago. The front cover stated, “Dad, today I am going to do something really special for you.” Inside it read, “I am going to laugh at one of your jokes.” She has yet to deliver on that promise. Vanessa is now married to Andy — an emerging Dad Joker who does crack a smile at some of my jokes. Hope springs paternal.

Puns are maliciously maligned as the lowest form of humor. That probably comes from some uptight sour puss sucking on a pickle! I am a bottom feeder. I do like to poke pun at lots of situations. I agree with comedian Steve Patterson (host of CBC’s The Debaters and master punster where lots of wit happens), “a groan is as good as a laugh.”

Over the years I’ve had lots of fun teasing (some might argue tormenting) my audiences with Dad Jokes so they don’t suffer from jest lag. I often get encouragement from other Dad Jokesters, as in this e-mail from a participant: “We have three children as well. They, too, groan at ‘Dad Jokes.’ In fact, a couple of years ago they and my wife implemented a house rule of only allowing me two Dad Jokes a night! Great stuff … keep it coming … and don’t give up the Dad Jokes.” I forward those comments to my family. But such feedback seems to further scare the wit out of them.

Humor often raises or lowers leadership effectiveness. A new study just published in Harvard Business Review reports, “One good laugh — or better still, a workplace culture that encourages levity — facilitates interpersonal communication and builds social cohesion…it also influences critical behaviors and attitudes that matter to leadership effectiveness…” In “Sarcasm, Self-Deprecation, and Inside Jokes: A User’s Guide to Humor at Work,” University of Michigan researcher, Brad Bitterly, and Harvard Business School professor, Alison Wood Brookes, report on a range of research how humor helps or hurts leadership, teams, and workplace effectiveness. A few key points stand out from their research:

  • Context is Critical – a comment can be funny, fizzle, or inflammatory depending on the situation and group
  • Inside Jokes – can build team cohesion or exclusion
  • SelfDeprecation – shows confidence and humility or highlights competency shortfalls
  • Defusing Difficult Situations – could reframe tough problems or show lack of understanding and empathy
  • Delivering Negative Feedback – sets up a receptive response or undermines the seriousness of the issue or behavior
  • Coping Mechanism – reduces and diffuses negative emotions or looks callous and uncaring

The authors found, “Humor not only helps individuals ascend to positions of authority but also helps them lead more effectively once they are there…when leaders used humor, their employees were more likely to go above and beyond the call of duty.”

Leadership teams often poke fun at each other and send playful “zingers” around the meeting room. This can be a valuable addition to the team’s Laughter Index and boost its health. But this becomes destructive when team members “shoot below the water line” with “humorous” putdowns and potshots. Cowardly team members who don’t have the skills or courage to constructively confront their colleagues often wrap serious messages in “humor.”

It can be like having a snowball fight. As long as the snowballs are soft and fluffy, throwing them lightly at each other can be fun. But sometimes someone throws a snowball at another person’s head with a stone buried inside. When the team member is hurt, the offender will often say, “I was just joking.”

This can set a pattern of stone-laden snowballs and sometimes a few rocks thrown back and forth. The sniping, snowball, and stone throwing continues in the halls, conference calls, and workplace. Wounded team members often go back to their teams and get the people reporting to them to help make and throw barbs and complaints at the other team member’s group.

An effective way to reduce stones in snowballs is to set up a “no-sniping rule.” If a team member makes a comment that sounds like a putdown, cheap shot, or cynical remark, others tap their glasses or cups with a pen.

What your team’s Fun Factor? How healthy is your Laughter Index? Visit The Fun Factor: Steps to Making Work Engaging and Rewarding for a list of ways to energize your team.

You might not jest for the pun of it because your sense of ha ha is at a higher level. However you do it, lighten up your leadership with healthy laughter.