Are You Havin’ a Laugh at Work?

Be Respectful

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Key Point: Businesses and leaders can benefit from a sense of humor. A.J. Jacobs and Peter McGraw are two academics who study humor. Wharton management professor Adam M. Grant recently interviewed Jacobs and McGraw. This blog pulls from that interview. Jacobs is the bestselling author of “Drop Dead Healthy,” “The Year of Living Biblically” and “My Life as an Experiment.” McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado and co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

McGraw and his co-author went to Tanzania to investigate a laughter epidemic that allegedly happened in the 1960s. They also went to Japan to try to figure out the crazy game shows that are popular on television there. They spent time in the West Bank, a place where many people consider really dark and comedy proof, and found “lots of hilarity in Palestine.” One useful insight is that it they found humor often arises from potentially negative things.

Jacobs has come to understand that a lot of the humorous thinking has parallels to the way we should be thinking in business. “It has a lot to do with creativity: Taking disparate ideas and mashing them together, which I think is a way to [create] great businesses… Chipotle took fast food and healthy food and mashed it together, and they got this super business, which is the same idea as humor. Humor is hard, and you’ve got to come up with a hundred ideas before you get one or two that really work.”

McGraw notes the following: “Wherever possible, the humor should be inclusive, something that we can all laugh about together. As a manager, making fun of yourself is a great way to get things rolling. That’s actually a trick that we learned in Los Angeles when we were hanging out with all these stand-ups. When a stand-up comedian gets on stage, he or she usually makes fun of the thing that’s just peculiar about them. So, when I got back on stage again at the end of the book to prove that we’ve learned something, my first joke was “I spend a lot of time with comedians, and I learned you need to get a laugh right away. Hence, the sweater-vest.”

Having a sense of humor is important at work (and in life). It is a key part of becoming an effective leader and accessible person. It takes observation, practice and the confidence to be vulnerable. Who wants to work with a sour puss or pickle face that takes everything, especially themselves, too seriously? On the other hand a big smile and interesting quip attracts others; we want to be around people who act like that.

Character Moves:

  1. Look for ways to connect things in a way that are surprising and interesting combinations. This recipe can put a smile on people’s craniums. People love to work with people who can tastefully find the humor in every day life. This is less about trying to be a comedian than it is finding ways of observing and commenting on the daily things that happen in life. Almost every day serves up a menu of funny; like the “Dyslexic man who walks into a bra…” Haha!
  2. Find the humor in the negative things. Don’t be insensitive, but put matters in perspective. Some things are not funny and too serious to trivialize. However, most negative things have a humorous underbelly when we can step back and put things in perspective. Anyways… “The universe implodes. No matter…” Haha!
  3. Be inclusive and be able to laugh at yourself: “Hence, the sweater-vest.” People love the authenticity and accessibility of people who are appropriately self-deprecating. False humor that excludes others and/or is mean spirited has no shelf life. It is harmful… “A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: ”Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!” The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: ‘The driver just insulted me!’ The man says: ‘You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I’ll hold your pet monkey for you.’” This joke comes close to crossing the line but it was picked as one of the funniest ever. I laughed.

Good humor in The Triangle,

Lorne