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Using Humor for a Change
by Scott Friedman, CSP

With restructurings, takeovers, and layoffs sweeping the corporate world, employee insecurity and fear are at record levels. The definition of an optimist in corporate America today is an employee who brings his lunch to work. Change has become a daily activity with no end in sight. Anxiety reverberates throughout the entire organization. During these times, corporations need some sort of antidote for stress. Many companies see a dose of humor as a remedy to reduce tension and motivate workers. By coming to our senses of humor, we find truth in the statement that he or she who laughs, lasts.

Does a sense of humor translate into dollars and cents? While the savings won't show up on your balance sheet under comic credits or laugh assets, humor does add an intangible but real benefit.

Humor creates bonds in the workplace. It's the shortest distance between two people. Humor helps establish a feeling of camaraderie and sets the tone for cooperation rather than contention.

To use humor positively at work, people must take themselves lightly, while taking their jobs seriously. Humor is much more than just telling jokes. Humor is the ability to find something funny in your predicament. A comic vision helps people tolerate change in the workplace and get along better with others.

The health of any organization is in direct proportion to that organization's ability to laugh at itself. Many companies are just too darn serious. Their structure and formality inhibit open communications and stifle creativity. If organizations would loosen up a little, they would realize that informality and spontaneity foster open communications and stimulate creativity. What setting is more informal and spontaneous than one with good humor, fun, and play?

Humor is a technique that can be learned, practiced, reinforced and internalized just like other skills. Where do you start? First, remember that you don't need to be a stand-up comic, you just need to add some spirit to the work environment.

The first ten minutes of the morning set the 'attitude' for the rest of the day, so start light. Here are some ideas:
  • Start every morning by greeting everyone in the office with a big smile and a hearty hello. They will wonder what you're up to.
  • Place funny cartoons, appropriate jokes, or postcards on a company bulletin board. Sign your name with a note saying, "I thought you might enjoy this." Not only are you giving them an opportunity to laugh at this cartoon or joke, but people are saying, "I'll be darned, he's a real guy. What a surprise, he has a sense of humor just like us!"
  • Sprinkle internal communications with humor. Add a cartoon or funny one-liner to memos and you would be surprised how many people start reading those little devils.
  • To get meetings off on a productive foot, serve everyone ice cream or suckers at the start of the meeting. Communication is guaranteed to improve.
  • Inject humor into meetings. Have a dress-up theme meeting once a quarter. Share fifteen minutes of jokes at the start of every meeting.
  • Have a positive party funded by negative people. Every time someone in the office is caught being negative, they throw a dollar in a positive pot, and once a quarter the pot buys pizza, happy hour, or humor props for the office.
  • Wear amusing buttons. One executive wears one that says, "Save time, see it my way." Walk into your next meeting with a button that says, "God is watching, give her a good show." Try "Start each day with 'PMS'- a Positive Motivating Smile." Or "If you're too busy to laugh, you're just too busy."
  • Give rewards for the worst mistake of the week. This will encourage employees to share and learn from their blunders.
  • Spike your environment. Place positive and appropriate humor props around your office. How about Groucho glasses on your ficus or a red clown nose on your fax machine?
  • Send out cartoons with your correspondence. Put your clients in a receptive mood before reading proposals.
  • Have one "call in well" day a year. Instead of calling in sick, you would call up and say, "I'd really love to come to work today, but I just feel too good. 'Love ya! Bye!"
  • Keep it light. If an employee is frustrated with a new computer system and can't figure out the manual, a boss may sympathize by saying, "How's that new mystery book you're reading? Can I help?"
  • Use Aikido to defuse tension. As Tom Crum reminds us in his book "The Magic of Conflict" Aikido literally translated means "the way of blending energy." It's blending with the aggressor instead of choosing to be aggressive or defensive.
    When an irate client asks, "Have you been incompetent your whole life?" your response could be, "Not yet I haven't." Or when a customer comes in and says, "Okay who is the idiot in charge here?" say, "I'm head idiot. What can I do for you?" An unexpected non-threatening response absorbs and redirects the anger in a harmless way without putting the other person down. It may be almost impossible to control others, but you can always control yourself.
A quick warning --- Be careful when using Aikido. There is a fine line between positive and negative humor. The first thing is to ask yourself the question, "Where am I coming from?" If you're coming from a hostile place, it could very well be reflected in your humor for humor mirrors the truth. Anger or bitterness many times comes out as sarcasm or humor with a biting, caustic edge. You do more harm than if you had said nothing at all.

The most effective humor has its roots in kindliness and affection. The highest form of laughter is to laugh at yourself; the lowest is to laugh at someone else. Making fun of yourself creates instant rapport and creates bonds with workers.

One executive was quoted as saying, "There are two ways to develop self-esteem at the office. The first is to share positive humor, and the second is to take all mirrors out of the washrooms."

A healthy sense of life's absurdities can help us forget our problems and put a smile on our faces. With humor we can sit back, detach ourselves from the situation, and laugh at ourselves for becoming so reactive at life's afflictions. And we can ask ourselves, "Why am I taking life so seriously? It's not permanent." No one gets out of it alive anyway. In a hundred years, what difference will it make anyway. So lighten up! So if a tornado blows off your roof, be like the guy who put up a sign saying, "Open House Today."

"Laughter is contagious --- Why not infect the whole company?"

Copyright Scott Friedman. All Rights Reserved.

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