As I See It: Bringing the Funny
Published: March 17, 2008
by Victor Rozek
One of the early traumas that children suffer is often at the hands of well-meaning parents who hire clowns to entertain at birthday parties. The grotesquely painted face, the loud unfamiliar costume, the over-sized feet, and the parental pressure to have fun because this is costing Daddy a couple-hundred bucks all combine to confuse and frighten the child. More than one party has been disrupted when the birthday celebrant runs off crying in search of his or her mother.
Corporate parents--those practitioners of tough love known collectively as management--are bringing this same notion of traumatic fun to the workplace. Forget empowerment, forget about putting the "k" in kwality, forget searching for excellence; they're as antiquated as the Princess phone. "There's a new core value on the loose," says Matt Labash, writing for the Weekly Standard, "and it goes by the name of Fun." (Which a second ago I just misspelled as "gun." Not so funny.)
Management's intention for bringing the funny is relatively straightforward. When people are laughing and enjoying themselves, they become more creative and more productive, and they stay on the job longer. The road to hilarity, however, can take some peculiar turns. Here are just some of the fun ways management is keeping their employees laughing. "Rubber chickens, Frisbee tosses, mustache-growing contests, pet psychics, interoffice memos alligator-clipped to toy cars, and ceremonies that honor employees for such accomplishments as having the most animated hand gestures." Having fun yet? Don't worry, there's help. You can--and many corporations do--says Labash, hire "funsultants" or "funcilitators" to bring yuks to the workplace. They can help you practice "fun-shui," or host an "out of the box Olympics," or "lead laughter sessions sanctioned by the World Laughter Tour." And if that doesn't stimulate your funny bone, there's always "filling a co-worker's office with packing peanuts on his birthday." Oh, I have to stop now, I'm doubling over with laughter.
The skeptical Labash contacted some of his friends and colleagues to find out what they thought of all this corporate merriment. "They are smart, competent, creative people with highly refined senses of humor--fully formed adults." he says. "Yet they are unable to escape the condescending infantilization of their workplaces, the coercive 'fun,' the forced march through the land of clenched-teeth joviality."
That may be harsh. I'm sure the guy with the packing peanuts in his office was eventually able to scrape the styrofoam dust off his clenched teeth. Regardless, humor is not altogether undesirable, especially in environments where the work is dull and allows for little creative expression. So I decided to consult with my very own funsultant.
Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant is a professional funny person. She's probably funnier than I remember, but she has these great legs and always wears short skirts and very high heals during her performances, so I tend to miss some of what she's saying. In addition to doing stand-up, she is frequently asked to speak at corporations, government agencies, or non-profits, and the subject is usually some variation on how humor can be an asset in the workplace.
There are five areas where humor can be beneficial, said Jasheway: mitigating change, assuaging conflict, alleviating stress, building teams, and fostering creativity. The problem, she said, is that our biologically programmed reactions to situations of stress and conflict--the fight, flight, or freeze response--may have ensured our survival when we wandered the savannah, but they don't work as well at the office. The essence of humor is distraction and diffusion, she said, both of which can dilute tension by diverting our attention. Besides, as any good manager knows: If you can smile when things go wrong, you probably already have someone in mind to blame.
Or maybe people just feel better when they laugh.
Indeed, laughter has known medical benefits. It has been proven to reduce stress and bolster the immune system. Do it often enough and you can increase your levels of T-cells, which fight infection, and B-cells, which produce antibodies that destroy disease. Laughter has even been shown to reduce the incidence of Type II diabetes and heart disease.
It's about choosing to see the funny instead of the frustrating, Jasheway said, replacing the negative with the nonsensical. Instead of thinking "I'm getting nowhere fast," try "destined for greatness but pacing myself."
Oooh, at my age, I'd better pick up the pace.
I think for people like Labash, there is a fundamental difference between humor, which is welcome, and management-sponsored funtivities, which seem contrived. It's the difference between watching a sit-com with a live audience and one with a canned laugh track. Besides, fun is a highly personalized concept. Some people enjoy shopping, I'm told, from which I can only conclude that fun, like God, works in mysterious ways.
Just how much office hilarity you'll tolerate has a lot to do with what you believe about the nature of work. Management has many ways of reminding their employees that, "we don't pay you to enjoy yourself," Jasheway said. "It's the old Puritanical belief that work has to be hard and unpleasant." But younger generations of employees no longer hold that belief and won't tolerate working at a job totally devoid of fun.
People may be mistrustful of humor because it is often used to bludgeon, shame, or ridicule; to put someone in their place. But having a sense of humor, especially for women, appears to be an important asset in the workplace. Jasheway cites a study of managers and humor conducted by Wayne Decker, Ph.D. of Salisbury University. "The interesting thing," he says, "was that women using non-offensive humor at work were rated the best on leadership measures, above men who used or didn't use their sense of humor. Females not using their humor skills were rated the worst." Apparently we men need you women to have a sense of humor, especially when it comes to our performance--ah, at work, that is.
Jasheway offers the following guidelines for the humane use of humor in the workplace.
- Focus the laughs on yourself. Doing so helps humanize you in the eyes of others, thus increasing your likeability. It also reduces the chances of accidentally hurting anyone's feelings. Don't think of me as your manager; think of me as a friend who is always right.
- Drop the sarcasm. Remember, sarcasm is mean-spiritedness masked as humor. If you think there's even a chance you'll wish you hadn't said it, don't. Bummer, nothing is more discouraging than unappreciated sarcasm.
- Poke fun up, not down. Never make fun of anyone with less power than you or focus on characteristics of individuals over which they have no control, such as age, gender, ethnicity, or weight. Of course, before you poke too much fun at top management, find out if they have a sense of humor. If they're laughing through clenched teeth, stop poking.
- Balance the "I'm the alpha male/female" body language with something funny. Don't just lighten up your words, be sure your face and body carry the same playful message. In other words, be sure your humor informs your face.
- Never tell anyone--employees, co-workers, stockholders, children--"That's not funny." This implies that your sense of humor trumps everyone else's. If you need to stop humor that is hostile or insensitive, use no words instead. Silence in the room usually indicates it's not funny.
- When it comes to telling a joke or funny story, practice makes perfect. Pay special attention to your enunciation (they won't laugh if they can't hear what you're saying), and timing. And don't underestimate your humorous abilities; that's your boss's job.
- Plan for things to go wrong. Stand-up comics write "savers," funny one-liners to use in situations that are likely to go awry. You should too. Remember what Dwight Eisenhower said: "Plans are useless, but planning is essential."
- Remember the funny part always goes at the end.
In that spirit, I offer the following observation from one of Labash's friends, which pretty well explains everything. "When you and I were born, there were 2 billion people in the world. Today, there are 6 billion. Maybe there are only 2 billion real jobs and all the rest of us are being relegated to bullshit jobs, like fun coaches and creative directors. If we took away all the bullshit jobs, our economy would collapse."
As the proud holder of any number of, er, marginal jobs, I say, let the fun begin!
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