Free Essay

Humor in Management

In: Business and Management

Submitted By gogicha1
Words 4043
Pages 17
David Gogichaishvili
Graduate Student, School of Telecommunications, Ohio University
Independent Study with WILL HOYT on “Humor in Management”
Spring 2002

Introduction

This literature review on humor in management explores the issues of effectiveness of humor in the workplace. The primary focus is in management processes. Humorous managers are more effective, so to say. But there are some techniques and tips for turning your humor into managerial success. Not every type of humor can be appropriate.

The “What” section of this study deals with a general background about humor. Questions like why we should use humor, whether we should use it at all, etc. will be answered in the “Why” section of this paper. And finally, the “How” section will explore some basic rules on how to use humor in the workplace appropriately. There will be some suggestions even for managers who lack a sense of humor.

So, enjoy and remember the most important aspect of humor in the workplace: Your employees should laugh with you, not at you!

WHAT

Humor is a quintessentially social phenomenon, since every joke requires both a teller and an audience. A sense of humor is a different and positive perspective on events and things. It can be utilized as an instrument to develop an atmosphere that is conductive to motivation. Laughter itself has physical, emotional, and moral benefits. Humorous people tend to be more adaptive, more capable of handling stress, more intelligent and more analytical. They are also more open, articulate, and optimistic. A survey conducted among Fortune 500 Company executives revealed that a sense of humor is the third most important factor needed to succeed in business.

A sense of humor is nothing more than a different perspective, a more positive spin on things. This study will examine how humor can be a strong managerial tool. Does this mean that we all suddenly are to become stand-up comedians, starting every day with “Did’ja hear the one about?...” Certainly not. The goal is to turn into a manager we all would like to work for, the one that sees victory when everyone else sees only defeat; the one wise enough to know that we learn so much more from our human failures than from our public successes. The following is a perfect example: A newly hired sales representative lost a $5 million dollar account! The following morning he walked into his boss’ office with a plain white envelope. The boss looked at the envelope and said: “What’s this?” The young man said: “It’s my resignation; I wanted to save you the stress of having to fire me”. “Fire you?” said the boss, “we just spent $5 million training you!” This story, true by the way, clearly shows the attitude we’re going for here – a perfect example of a sense of humor.

A true sense of humor – that sense of irony, that wisdom to recognize the insane in the presence of apparent reason, that ability to really let go and laugh hysterically – is uniquely human. Man is the only animal who can laugh, perhaps because he is also the only animal that is aware of his mortality. Now, there might be many people arguing that other animals laugh too. I would reply that my dog, for example, has a wicked sense of humor; but to my knowledge, has never actually laughed, at least not out loud. Also, I would warn scientists, who insist that apes, chimps, and gorillas have been known to cut up when exposed to pleasant physical stimuli, that tickling a lowland gorilla to watch him chuckle is NOT advisable pending further research!

Let us all agree that the man is the only animal who can laugh. It is therefore imperative that encouraging frequent laughter, primarily at one’s own expense, can be the most humanizing thing any of us ever do in the workplace.

The expression “laughter is the best medicine” has a genuine basis. Medical experts tell us that hearty laughter can stimulate and intensify the activity of catecholamines -- hormones which cause the body’s own painkilling endorphins to be released into the bloodstream. Laughter lowers the blood pressure, relieves tension, improves blood flow, and eases ailments of the digestive and intestinal tracts.

Before we go to “why” and “how” sections, it would be beneficial if we know some more statistics about humor. Qualities of a good mother? 61% say a sense of humor; most important quality in a spouse or significant other? Sense of humor was listed second; 61% of men and 57% of women laugh at least once an hour at work; do we work with fun people? 81% say yes; in our homes, do we share jokes or make each other laugh? 81% say often or very often; And before the election a sample of 1303 adults were asked which presidential candidate they thought had a better sense of humor—34% said Al Gore, 48% said George W. Bush.

Also, talking about humor, it is interesting to know a standard dictionary definition of it: “that quality in a happening, an action, a situation, or an expression of ideas which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous; comic or amusing quality”. It is also of a great interest to compare this one with some other definitions, such as: “Humor is the experience of incongruity”; “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility”; “The joy of getting it, experiencing the forbidden, getting away with something”.

As it was mentioned above, humor can ease tension at work, stimulate creative thinking, promote fellowship among employees, and make a more pleasant workplace. Humor can also be a negotiation facilitator, a coping mechanism, a communication facilitator, a cognitive tool, a creative force, a survival device, a motivator and much more. And at this point we are ready to explore the issues related to why we should use humor in the workplace and how.
WHY

Experts agree that humor, when used in context, is more than just a morale-boosting gimmick to grab audience attention. It is a powerful communications and learning tool that effectively illustrates a salient point. Humor can effectively disarm the reader and break down emotional barriers for improved comprehension of your message. Plus, they won't forget it. Left brain messaging ensures both cognitive and emotional understanding.
Is humor effective in any work culture? Absolutely. People not only want to laugh, they need it. It's a natural and healthy human requirement. Humor is sought out, posted on bulletin boards, and sent to colleagues. And it helps alleviate stress, especially during change and transition.

The effect of humor in physiological, cognitive, and affective responses and on the communication process suggests that humor may shape the climate and informal social relations at work. Humor has also been cited as a possible source of psychic rewards, as well as a way to relieve frustration, alleviate boredom, and facilitate information transfer at work.

The significance of humor as a characteristic of the work environment appears to center on the positive role humor plays in affecting the mood at work and the communication channels within the organization. In addition to the numerous formal mechanisms for motivating behavior, leaders (managers) can rely on more subtle and informal mechanisms such as humor. Studies have shown that regardless of gender, positive humor would enhance leadership behavior and effectiveness.
So, the question is now, why in the workplace? Of course in the workplace. What is a better place to use humor? We have been conditioned by our teachers, parents, etc. that the workplace is the most serious place we can ever go. It’s a place where important, often serious, business is run. It’s a place where empires are built, etc. But at the same time, it’s a place where human beings – fallible ones – spend a good portion of their working hours. It is a place where much time is spent in tedium, in conflict, in challenge, in fear and in accomplishment. Now, can you think of a better place for a sense of humor?

No one is suggesting that everything in life is meant to be made light of on a regular basis. As mature adults we are expected to take our jobs, our relationships, and our value systems seriously. But perhaps the real reason man was blessed as the only creature who can laugh is because maybe we were never, ever intended to take ourselves seriously. Nobody ever said it better than Oscar Wilde: “Life is too important be taken seriously!” As managers, we should be broadening our perspectives, opening our minds, and lightening up our lives and lives of everyone we meet. Laughter is just our way of saying “thank you”.

Using an appropriate humor in the workplace will help create a positive environment, which in turn, will enhance productivity. We, as managers, should realize that a sense of humor is deeper than laughter and more satisfactory than comedy, and delivers greater rewards than merely being entertaining. A sense of humor sees the fun in every day experiences. It is more important to have fun rather than to be funny.
Humor in the workplace is NOT joke telling, inefficient use of time, disregard for respect or authority, disregard of the seriousness of the business you are in. It is rather the realization of the value of laughter to physical and mental health; it’s about being OK to laugh and allow laughter as the natural humor that occurs daily around us in our business; it’s about reduced tension and stress, increased efficiency, attendance and retention; and it’s about dangers of inappropriate humor, such as sexist or racist humor. Jimmy Buffet sings in his song:
“Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes;
Nothing remains the same,
With all of our running, and all of our cunning,
If we could not laugh, we would all go insane!”
Our professional lives are changing at an incredible rate of speed. We think we are out in front, only to seemingly fall hopelessly behind. Laughter is our life preserver!

You, as a manager, are not aware of humor when it’s part of the normal flow and internchange. But there are times, when you come to a situation or feel a situation begin to develop where you think, “I have to change this” and you consciously decide that the right way to diffuse it is to crack a joke.

Not only does humor help create a better working atmosphere, but it also establishes a constructive climate for negotiations. In meetings where tension is building up and the sense of opposition greater than the issue demands, then humor is often the best way to puncture that. It can allow both sides to realize they are getting overconcerned about something quite trivial. They can feel foolish. They can join in the laughter. And you can smother the situation that way. Comedian John Cleese explained the persuasive power of humor in negotiation: “If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at a particular point I make, by laughing at it, you acknowledge its truth. It’s no coincidence that the man I know who always has the best stock of new jokes is not a comedian, but a salesman”.

Therefore, using humor in negotiations is good because it’s generally unexpected. If people are all set, considering their affairs and their PR-polished phrases, an injection of humor brings an element of surprise to the situation. And it certainly makes it more difficult for people to plod on with their rehearsed arguments.

Also, to answer the question “why humor in the workplace” it should be noted that humor has some other benefits as well. The skillful and appropriate use of humor demonstrates that:
--You have self-confidence
-- You feel in control of the situation
-- You are comfortable with yourself.
There are tons of other rewards that humor can bring you, as a manager. To mention some of them:
Humor bonds teams. It is effective in establishing the sense of group identity and togetherness that welds a collection of individuals into a team. It also helps break down the sense of distance that occurs naturally between managers and those they supervise, which in turn, enhances the trust. The bosses who don’t make the effort to put themselves into humor/trust circle are either arrogant/competent or benevolent/incompetent.
Humor conveys authority. The wise use of humor offers an excellent way to demonstrate self-confidence. When you laugh at your own weaknesses, it makes others feel that your shortcomings cannot really be very serious faults. Self-effacing humor defuses potential areas of criticism, making it harder for people to find fault with you and easier for them to agree with you.
Humor reduces stress. As we mentioned while speaking about some medical aspects of humor, it stimulates the release of endorphins, the painkilling chemicals in the brain similar to morphine. In his book “Anatomy of an Illness”, Norman Cousins wrote that ten minutes of laughter “has the same anesthetic effect of at least two hours of pain-free sleep”.
Humor helps us keep problems in perspective. Humor is a great way not only for looking at reality, but also of dealing with it. In short, laughter keeps you from moping, helps you start hoping, and leads you toward coping!

Among other benefits that humor can bring you, as a manager, are enhancing your image, increasing your “likability” factor, increasing your problem-solving/decision making skills, promoting your business and profession, defusing hostility and dealing with confrontation, sell your ideas/products more easily, enjoying your job more, raising your level of happiness and much, much more…

So, is the question “why should we encourage using humor in the workplace?” answered? Yes, it is!

HOW

Managers tend to think that engaging in humor at the risk of being perceived as “silly” is dangerous work behavior. These are typically the managers who lack the natural sense of humor. An alternative for such managers is to infuse the work environment with humor and levity by drawing it out of the group of employees. Before getting to discussion of how even managers who lack the natural ability to be humorous can employ humor for benefits, we will concentrate on some risks concerning humor in the workplace. So, the question now becomes “ok, humor’s good, but how should I use it?”

As anxious as we may be to add laughter and humor to our bag of managerial tricks, it is wise to take time to consider the “rules of the game”.

1.Rule number one is that in order to be really effective, you should direct jokes at yourself and your own shortcomings as a fallible human being. It’s a safer route!

2.Rule number two deals with trust and fairness. People respond best to humor when it is delivered by those they trust the most. Again, it’s critical who jokes, when and in what situation. Don’t joke if your audience has little or no trust in you!

3.Rule number three has something to do with humor as a teaching tool. You should use humor whenever it is appropriate in any presentations or training sessions. But the most important thing to remember here is that you should never throw a joke into the presentation “just for the heck of it” unless it is appropriate and relevant to the subject matter. Otherwise your audience will remember the joke but forget the point you were trying to make. The joke or anecdote should amplify the point, not obliterate it!

4.Rule four deals with the concept that humor is intensely personal and using it in certain situations and with certain people could backfire. Humor, if used inappropriately, can have the effect of insult, or abuse. The reason is because humor cuts through to the “human” in all of us. Still, as important as it is to understand the intimacy of humor in the human dynamic, it is also generally the best way to diffuse uncomfortable situations. Therefore, trying a little gentle humor first might be the best weapon.

5.Rule number five reminds us of the old saying about politics and religion and goes back to rule number two. Jokes about the other parties’ belief systems may be perceived by them as attacking. This is dangerous territory. Therefore, know your audience before you proceed! And that goes also for comments about race, sex, and lifestyle. Political correctness may be annoying, even ludicrous, to most of us, but simple courtesy, respect and sensitivity to the feelings of others is an essential requirement for claiming our humanity.

Also, taking into account that people differ greatly in the way they perceive what is funny and what is not, regional, geographical, racial, sexual, and other issues should be considered. Your speeches, presentations, and what is most important, your humor on the East Coast should be different from the ones on East and very different from the ones in the South!

6. Rule number six deals with an actual strategy of using humor. Before you tell a joke, know exactly where the humor in the joke is coming from by analyzing “punch line”.

It can be inferred from the six rules, that you, as a manager, should NOT employ sarcastic or sexual humor, should NOT use humor as a “power play”, should NOT use humor to exclude others, should NOT use humor to undermine, belittle, or humiliate. It is so tempting to do sometimes, but it will be harmful!

Speaking on a global basis, employing humor in the work environment also includes humorous programs at work such as humorous newsletters, cartoons, creative bulletin boards, and even a humorous web site for your staff. Some games and contests are also a great help.

But, being more specific, how exactly should we use humor and what can be done if it doesn’t work? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there are no guarantees that your humor will work. So, there is some risk in this.

Managers tend to have some fears and/or fallacies concerning using humor. We tend to think that:
1.Humor is not appropriate in business. (we’re too busy for humor) WRONG! Being humorous does not mean that we are not taking our jobs seriously, but rather means that we are not taking OURSELVES seriously. Lighthearted does not mean frivolous. Humor simply helps us to remember that the real bottom line of all out business endeavors should be that PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THINGS! Business is not exclusively about selling the products or supplying services, it’s about people!
2.Being humorous will undermine my authority. (People will think that I don’t know how to “take charge”) WRONG AGAIN! Humor, as it was discussed in “Why” section, strengthens you authority and aura of confidence and control. If you are controlling the tone of situation, you are the leader of that situation regardless of your title or job description.
3. Some people just aren’t funny and they shouldn’t try. (People won’t think I’m funny, I’ll “bomb”) WRONG AGAIN! People who aren’t naturally humorous have even more reason to work on developing their technique. Being funny is an ability, and a valuable one, that can be learned.

There are certain principles and techniques that can make humor work. First among the basic forms and devices of humor are the set up and punch line. Set up in some cases may be a few words, but it can take several sentences to get the audience to the punch line. There is a rhythm in humor, just as there is in music and one of the best combinations is called triple – essentially a set up, another set up and punch line.

For example: “OK, here’s my agenda for this morning. First, I’ll stack the good letters on the left and the complaint letters on the right. Then I’ll read the one good letter. Then I’ll look at the stack of two hundred complaints and jump out of the nearest window.”

“Milking a joke”, another common technique, is essentially an add-on method for getting your listeners on a “laugh roll”. You can build on a punch line by adding a second or even a third punch line relating to the original idea. We can use this technique to add on the above mentioned example: “My desk will be clear and it won’t be coffee break time – this could get me a raise and a promotion”. But remember be careful not to push it too far!

Since a concentration of this study is not techniques and exercises for managers who lack the natural sense of humor, we would recommend examining them in the literature provided in the bibliography. The literature on humor explores specific exercises of seeing a humor in situations like television commercials, ads or PR materials, famous people’s names, well-known songs, etc. There are also some exercises that will get you to turn clichés into potent one-liners.

Conclusion

This literature review on humor in management can be an introduction to a further research on this topic. The issues such as what humor is, why it is uniquely human, how important a sense of humor is for people, medical and psychological aspects of humor were discussed in the first, so called “What” section of this paper. The second, “Why” part dealt with significance of using humor in the workplace, managerial fallacies and fears, humor and motivation, and why humor helps create positive environment in the workplace. Finally, the third, last section of the paper, called “How”, explored some specific techniques and rules of how to use an APPROPRIATE humor in the workplace and what to avoid. A further examination of this issue, and/or developing a questionnaire for a sample of managers would be of great interest for research in this field.

Bibliography

Books:
1.Bob Ross. “Funny Business Solutions and the Art of Using Humor Constructively”. Arrowhead Publishing, San Diego, California, 1998.
2.Jean-Louis Barsoux. “Funny Business – Humor, Management and Business Culture”. Cassel publ., London, Great Britain, 1993.
3.Robert McGraw. “Learning to Laugh at Work – The Power of Humor in the Workplace”. Skillpath Publ., Mission, Kansas. 1995.
Articles:
4.Linda Farell. “You’ve got to be kidding: Humor as a fundamental management tool”. Records Management Quarterly, 32 (3): 3-4, 6-8, 43, July 1998.
5.Frank Boruch; Monica Boruch. “Your work can be child’s play”. Human Recourses Magazine, 40 (8): 60-64, August 1995.
6.John Sullivan. “Are we having fun yet?” Project Management Network, 12 (8): 15, August 1998.
7.Gregory Thomas Hill. “Sex and gender differences in humor, creativity, and their correlations”. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences. Vol 62 (2-A), August 2001.
8.Wayne H Decker; Denise M Rotondo. “Relationships among gender, type of humor, and perceived leader effectiveness”. Journal of Managerial Issues, Pittsburg; Winter 2001.
9.Dawn T Robinson; Lynn Smith-Lovin. “Getting to laugh: Gender, status, and humor in task discussions”. University of North Carolina Press. Vol. 80, issue 1, September 01, 2001. Pp.123-158.
10.Bruce J Avolio; Jane M Howell; John J Sosik. “A funny thing happened on the way to the bottom line: Humor as a moderator of leadership style effects”. Academy of Management Journal, 42 (2): 219-227, April 1999.
Videorecording(s):
11.“Lighten up: survival skills for people under pressure”. AMI/ American Media Incorporated, 1994.
Web sites: 12. Denise Forro; Leah Black. “How many librarians does it take to change a lightbulb?” www.uky.edu/libraries/humor.ppt Retrieved at April 14, 2002.

13.Regina Berreca. “Humor in the Workplace”. http://www.ngma-grants.org Retrieved at April 14, 2002.
14.Work Maxim -- “The Power of Humor”. http://www.workmaxim.com/aboutus_Power.cfm Retrieved at April 14, 2002.
15.Jeff Justice. “Get Serious…About Humor”. http://www.jeffjustice.com Retrieved at April 14, 2002.
16.Dick Kirtley. “Laugh to live: Humor in the workplace”. http://www.laughtolive.com/humor.html Retrieved at April 14, 2002.

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