My first job after graduating from college was working as a project manager at Procter & Gamble. When you combine that with my degree, a BS in Computer Science & Engineering, and my Meyers-Briggs profile of INTJ, I don’t seem like I’d be one to talk about humor.
The truth is, as an engineer, I only care about things that work. As it turns out, humor works in the workplace. In a world where people are stressed out, unsatisfied with their jobs, and are constantly overwhelmed, humor is a tool that can boost morale, increase engagement, and make what we call “work” a lot more fun.
Why Humor Matters
PMI states that 90% of a project manager’s job is communication. I’d gather the same is true for leaders and supervisors. Our work day involves communicating with others through emails, meetings, presentations, trainings, phone calls, instant messages, not-so-instant messages, and maybe even messenger pigeon.
In an attempt to save myself from communication overload and/or boredom while at P&G, I started adding humor to my work. I’d add a joke at the end of an email, ask get-to-know-you questions at the top of meetings, use interesting images in my presentations, and more.
Two things happened as a result: 1) I started enjoying my work more, and 2) I started being more effective. People actually read my emails, came to my meetings, and paid attention to my presentations.
Bolstered by that success, I found additional ways to have fun: I gave my team members “personality assessments” like “which Star Wars character are you?” (I’m R2D2); I started giving my projects cooler names (like “Project Awesomization”); and I taught coworkers how to be more creative using improvisation.
I didn’t realize the impact I was having until, after one of my normal weekly status meetings, a coworker of mine, Sarah (aka Ewok), pulled me aside and said “I just want to thank you.”
I had no idea what she was talking about so I said “It’s about time! Why are you thanking me?”
“Because of this project,” she replied. “It’s been fun. Before I joined Project Awesomization, I was stressed out and thinking about quitting. But then I joined your team and you did things differently. You had jokes in your emails and started each meeting with a new question. And I realized no one told you to make it fun, you just decided to. So thank you.”
I was blown away. Ewok was right. No one ever told me to use humor, but no one ever stopped me either. Whether you’re the supervisor of a small team or the leader of a huge organization, humor can help you inspire your own Ewoks to enjoy their work more and you don’t need anyone’s permission to use it.
The Benefits of Humor
My conversation with Ewok made me realize the value of humor, so I decided to do more research. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who saw the benefits of adding a little levity to the workplace.
There are at least 30 benefits of humor at work, all backed by research, case studies, and real world examples, falling into 5 major reasons to use humor:
With all of these benefits, it’s not a surprise that people who use humor at work are more productive, less stressed, and happier, something any leader should want for themselves and their team.
What We Mean by Humor in the Workplace
Now some of you may worry, “wait, are you saying I have to become a stand-up comedian to be a better leader?” Not at all. It’s important to understand that humor is more broad than comedy. Humor is defined as a comic, absurd, or incongruous quality causing amusement.
Yes, humor can be comedy but it can also be so much more; it’s anything that causes amusement. And when it comes to using humor in the workplace, the focus should be on positive and inclusive humor. Sarcasm and satire can make for hilarious jokes, but they don’t usually create positive change. For humor that works, think of it as a way of working that is different, effective, and fun.
The easiest way to check whether or not your humor is appropriate for the workplace is to think of the newspaper rule: would you be comfortable with whatever you said or did showing up on the front page of your hometown newspaper? Would you want your boss, your coworkers, your mom, or your parakeet to read about it? If yes, you’re probably okay. If you’re hesitant, then it’s probably best to avoid.
Ways to Add Humor at Work
So how can leaders take advantage of these humor benefits?
Adding humor into the workplace isn’t as intimidating as it may seem. Regardless of your humor skill level, here are four ways leaders can add humor in the workplace:
1. Keep people’s attention with images in presentations.
Most people know they should avoid Death-by-PowerPoint where they create slides with a wall full of text that they just read to the audience, but they don’t know how to create engaging presentations instead.
One of the easiest ways to spruce up a presentation is to use images. Instead of reading the text you wrote on a slide, speak to how the image connects to the point you are trying to make. And anyone can do this, you don’t have to be a great photographer to be able to find interesting images online under a creative commons license.
2. Get to know your team by asking interesting questions.
As a supervisor, it’s important to get to know your employees as actual human beings and not just resources you assign work to. One way to do that is to simply chat with them more. This could be idle chit-chat in the elevator or by starting off each of your team meetings with a question that everyone answers.
Despite its negative connotations, small talk serves an important function in building relationships. But if you ask the same boring questions, you’ll get the same boring answers. Instead of asking vague questions like, “how was your weekend?” add a small twist to make it more interesting: “what was the best part about your weekend?”. Small changes like this can make the conversation more amusing and build stronger connections with your coworkers.
3. Recharge during the day by watching comedy videos.
It is very difficult to be productive if you are dead… Or if you feel like death because you’re sick, tired, or worn out. Recharging throughout the day is key to maintaining energy and focus when you need it most. These breaks can reduce stress and prevent burnout helping you be more productive in the long run.
To manage your energy, schedule small breaks between meetings to go for a walk, chat with a friend, or watch a funny video. Watching stand up comedians such as Brian Regan and sketch shows like Key & Peele are not only a great way to recharge, they can also help you think more creatively.
4. Stay engaged with work by turning it into a game.
No matter how senior you are as a leader, you have to execute some tasks. Whether it’s sending out emails, delivering a presentation, or following up with people about TPS reports (but not in a Office Space way), supervisors have to get things done.
You can make completing your task-list more fun by turning it into a game. The process of “gamification” means taking elements of game theory and applying them to your work. By adding things like scoring, rewards, and competition, you can turn something as boring as email into a game between you and your peers.
Using Humor as a Leader
Adding humor to the workplace doesn’t have to be challenging (or expensive). As Ewok reminded me many years ago, it’s unlikely that anyone in your organization is going to tell you to use humor. Rather, it’s up to you to make the choice to do your work different, to choose to get better results while having more fun, to choose humor that works.