Humor Does a World of Good in the Workplace

A little levity does a world of good in the workplace. These considerations can help leaders lighten things up.

This year’s crop of Super Bowl ads was less than memorable. Few caught the attention of viewers the way that great advertisements of the past have. But there was one trend that continued—workplace follies. Monster.com debuted a spot a few years back with children talking about aspiring to careers in dead-end jobs. CareerBuilder.com followed the trend this year with an entry that drew a parallel between the performance appraisal and TV’s Survival. FedEx/Kinko’s has a new ad that satirizes the inability of employees to do their jobs.

Maladroit Management

What all of the ads have in common is a mocking look at the incompetence of employees or managers in the workplace. Scott Adams’ long-running cartoon strip, Dilbert, brought the feelings of many overstressed, underutilized employees who work with jerk-type bosses to the national consciousness. The cartoon’s success, coupled with a few satirical books, has made Dilbert an icon of the put-upon employee. The trend has flowered with Rick Gervais’s brilliant British television satire, The Office. The boss, played by Gervais, is vain, self-absorbed and wholly ignorant of people skills, despite his oft-boasted insight in this regard. So successful was this series, it spawned an American version.

So what’s going on here? Has the much-vaunted American management model, the one created by the most elite business schools in the world, finally run aground on the shoals of clueless managers? Well, sometimes! You only have to look at the number of failed or failing companies in this country to surmise that some managers ain’t too bright. At the same time, the satires, whether made for advertising or entertainment, do have some home truths. Namely that managers can be ignorant. Employees are overloaded. Systems are designed by incompetents to generate more incompetence. This is not new, but it is refreshing to see publicly recognized—and to be able to laugh at it.

Humor is vital to the workplace, and managers who can cultivate a bit of jollity and joviality are to be lauded. Here are some things to consider doing to lighten up the premises.

Laugh at yourself. Managers need to set the tone for levity. The first place to start is by looking in the mirror. “Inconsistency with ourselves,” wrote Joseph Addison, “is the greatest weakness of human nature.” It’s also a wonderful opening for humor. For example, a marketing manager might begin a review of a failed campaign he authorized with a self-inflicted jab like, “The guy who signed off on this deal might just be looking for work next week.” Zing! It’s not an excuse; it’s permission to look objectively at the facts, and license to offer criticism.

Post joke of the week. My wife, a senior manager for a university health care concern, puts a cartoon on the agenda page of her weekly meetings. Her colleagues love it, and actually look forward to seeing the next cartoon. It is one way to encourage attendance at important meetings. The light touch also gets people off on the right foot—smiling! “Comedy,” said Robin Williams, “is acting out optimism.” [Note: keep all humor clean and positive.]

Look on the light side. Failure may be the best teacher, but sometimes the lessons sure do hurt. That’s where a little levity can come in handy. Good sales managers are adept at this. For example, if their team misses a quota, they might say something like, “We fell a bit short this month. If we fall any shorter, we won’t have anywhere to look but up.” Quips like that don’t dismiss the issue; they are salves for bruised egos. And they have a dual effect: One, they raise the shortcoming; two, they allow people to move forward without dwelling too much on the past. Relief pitchers in baseball are of the same mindset; a pitch given up for a homerun might be described as a pitch that didn’t quite go where I wanted it to go. Case closed. Let’s move on.

Truth Behind the Laughter

The realities that give Dilbert and its ilk such bite are serious matters. Buffoonish managers do wreak havoc in the workplace. All too often such managers rise to their positions propelled by the now famous Peter Principle developed by Dr. Laurence Peters in the late 1960s. It posited that managers rise to their level of incompetence and stay there. Their ineptitude leads to bureaucratic lethargy as well as the rooting out and quashing of ideas and initiatives that do not conform to yesterday’s (by now discredited) playbook. Such managers not only live by the mantra, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” they abide by an equally dismal adage, “If it’s not invented here, it is no good.” Not only does such an attitude breed mediocrity at best, it drives legions of competent employees to look elsewhere.

Of course, some things should not be made light of in the workplace—a person’s faith, ethnicity or sexual preference. Jokes on these issues may provoke hurt or cause harm. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut. On the other hand, those managers who get bent out of shape by a well-barbed joke about organizational foibles have something in common with the young lady in the Yiddish proverb. “The girl who can’t dance says the band can’t play.”

But in the meantime, no matter where you work—be it for a go-go new company like Google or a century-old behemoth like General Motors, there is plenty in the workplace to laugh at. Whether it’s the suck-up employee, the bottleneck-causing boss or the showman-style CEO, every workplace has its foibles. After all, as author/comedian Steve Allen once quipped, “Nothing is better than the unintended humor of reality.” And why not? Each workplace has one thing in common: It is designed, operated and occasionally misrun by human beings. And if you don’t find that funny, well, then maybe you need to take a long vacation. Maybe till next year’s Super Bowl!

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results (McGraw-Hill). Readers are welcome to visit his leadership resource website at www.johnbaldoni.com.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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