Humour Us

Thursday, 27 May 2021

The average 4-year-old laughs 300 times a day. It takes the average 40-year-old 2.5 months to laugh that many times. What’s going on and why is humour - and having a sense of humour - so important? Why do we dismiss humour in the workplace so readily?  I have a very strong view about humour in the workplace which can be summarised as follows.

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonis’ book title says it all - Humour, Seriously? Why Humour is a Superpower in Work and in Life. The authors point out that ‘a recent survey of more than 700 CEOs showed that 98% prefer job candidates with a sense of humour, and 84% think that funny employees do better work.’
Humour is a particularly powerful tool and one that can be used to clever, good effect to build harmonious team culture. It can diffuse conflict and can enhance a leader’s standing in the workplace. Knowing when to use humour without being an idiotic, infantile buffoon can captivate your audience and lift productivity. Using wit, clever sarcasm, humorous hyperbole, casual jocularity, irrepressible absurdity etc lightens the load in the day and reduces the tension. A playful response that pokes fun at the situation rather than people can bring levity into the workplace culture that is refreshing. It takes a clever, confident and insightful person to use humour and to understand its place in building a spirited, energetic and more harmonious culture.  

Aaker says (The Hidden Brain podcast ‘Humour Us’ 20 April) that humour has the impact of exercising, meditating and having sex at the same time such are the physiological and neurological benefits. Dr Aaker says when we laugh with someone, our brains release "a cocktail of healthy hormones that suppress cortisol and increase dopamine and oxytocin". There are also great benefits to our mental wellbeing. It is demonstrated that many smart people deploy humour to great effect and that a lack of humour, more often than not, points to a lack of confidence. Esther Perel says that where humour exists, love is not far behind. It is simply under-leveraged and under-appreciated. And yet it illuminates who we are.
That’s why “Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas teach “Humor: Serious Business”, at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, a course that has helped some of the world’s most hard-driving, blazer-wearing business minds have more joy in their work and lives.” (Wall Street Journal).
A recent Gallup poll (done in 166 countries) shows that humour nosedives at age 23 and that we start laughing again at 70. Just why humour comes to a crashing halt may be obvious to some. You can see that at age 23 many people are entering the workforce and / or finding their own way in the world. Life takes on a different perspective and simply surviving and thriving can focus our attention in serious ways. I can understand laughing less when I am entering the workforce, striving to achieve or impress whilst paying for living expenses that I was protected from whilst at home with my parents!
What is more mysterious is why many leaders feel that humour should not be considered as an effective means of developing culture and raising productivity. It is often perceived by some as the exact opposite - unfocussed, unproductive, frivolous and self-indulgent. Is this a hang-over from a bygone era which has typically being referred to as the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’? 

“The Protestant work ethic, also known as the Calvinist work ethic or the Puritan work ethic, is a work ethic concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes that diligence, discipline, and frugality are a result of a person's subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith, particularly Calvinism.” (Wikipedia). They were never the happiest breed those Protestants!
We have become super-serious of late. Admittedly, we are bombarded by so much negativity and suffering that it may seem impossible to find humour in the course of a day.
We simply have to find ways to allow humour to flourish in the workplace. Not everyone has the gift of being humorous – some are simply more attuned to finding humour than others. In that case, there may be some leaders who resent the attention the humorous person garners and hence may aim to shut it down. That’s a big mistake as those who are good at repartee are the golden nuggets in the workplace and leaders should be both encouraging them and learning from them. People with humour often have a unique way of thinking that can be exploited.
In her article, Making Humour Work, Janet Holmes says that humour not only contributes to the construction of effective workplace relationships (the creative use of relational humour) but may also stimulate intellectual activity of direct relevance to the achievement of workplace objectives. The former is pervasive whereas the latter idea is less frequent. The effective use of workplace humour to generate new ideas and stimulate intellectual progress is strongly associated with ‘transformational’ leadership.
Aaker and Bagdonis bust a few myths which won’t surprise you. Their research involved interviewing thousands of executives and they found:

  1. Myth One: the first was the ‘born with it’ myth. That’s the idea that some think you are born with this trait rather than seeing it as a skill to develop. 
  2. Myth Two: is the ‘failure myth’ – that is the fear one has that the humour won’t be appreciated or will ‘fail’. 
  3. Myth Three: is the ‘serious business myth’ – the implication being that humour is the enemy of a serious work ethic! 

Obviously these 3 myths combine to seal humour from the workplace. Having a balance of humour and seriousness is regarded as highly beneficial. And remember, “You don't have to be a comedian to bring banter into the workplace”, says Dr Aaker.

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