by Canadian business speaker and author of The Humor Advantage Michael Kerr. The following article first appeared in the Globe and Mail Newspaper on March 4, 2005.
“Did you hear the one about the manager who got a bigger bonus because he had a great sense of humour?”
You probably haven’t heard this one making the rounds at the water cooler, because it’s not a joke. It’s actually one finding from a study by researcher Fabio Sala—a consultant with the Hay Group’s McClelland Centre for Research and Innovation—who found a positive correlation between the size of executives’ bonuses and their use of humour. The study also found that outstanding executives use humour more than twice as often as the so-called average executives.
Studies like this point to a growing consensus that if you are serious about your career, then sometimes it pays to not be serious. At least, not too serious. Not when a healthy sense of humour can help you manage stress, spark creativity, build relationships, communicate more effectively, and stand out from the herd (not to mention earn you a bigger bonus).
This may explain why some workplaces even hire for a sense of humour, and why, if you’re in the job market, you may want to hone your humour skills. In fact, a survey of 737 CEO’s by Hodge Cronin and Associates found that a whopping 98% of them would rather hire someone with a good sense of humour than someone with a more serious demeanor.
Barry Williams, the manager of Barney’s Motel (“Rooms So Clean Even Our Mothers Are Proud!”), in Brandon, Manitoba, believes in the power of humour. So much so, that while a wing of his motel was burning to the ground, Williams changed his highway promotional sign to read: “Great Deal on Non-Smoking Rooms!”
Williams’ belief in humour is reflected in his help-wanted ads: “You LOVE to clean. . . on weekends . . . for NO wages . . . What, are you crazy? Why are you doing this for free when you could be making large coin at our place?”
Ads like these, Williams suggests, are not only more likely to get read, they also send the message that Barney’s Motel is a different kind of place to work, and that overly serious candidates need not apply.
Known for their positive use of humour both internally and with their customers, WestJet Airlines also considers attitude in their employee selection process: to become a “Westjetter” it helps to demonstrate a positive use of humour during the hiring process.
Even NASA has publicly stated that when the space agency recruits future astronauts one of the personality traits they will be looking for is humour, believing that candidates who demonstrate a sense of humour are more flexible, more creative and better able to deal with stress. (Of course, if you’re flying to Mars for 17 years with only one other crew member to keep you company, a good sense of humour might just be a lifesaver).
Once your foot is in the door, a well-flexed funny bone can also help maintain a thriving career. Humour is an important social lubricant, bonding tool and trust builder. A healthy sense of humour is also one of the most effective stress busters available, helping people distance themselves from their workplace stressors, maintain a more balanced perspective and overcome obstacles. Moreover, humour is one of the best catalysts for creative thinking, which makes sense, given that both humour and creativity are about combining unrelated ideas and looking at something in a new and different light. All these benefits are likely why a survey by Robert Half International found that 84% of the CEO’s and
H.R. directors believe people with a good sense of humour do a better job.
And as the Sala study points out, a sense of humour is even becoming an essential skill for senior executives. As humorist Bob Ross observed, “A leader without a sense of humour is like a lawn mower at a cemetery—they both have lots of people underneath them, but no one is paying them any attention.”
Senior executives set the tone for an entire workplace, and one who demonstrates a healthy sense of humour can create an environment of trust and openness. In this respect, workplace humour and laughter also serve as a useful barometer—an indicator of sorts—as to just how healthy and well-functioning a team or workplace is. After all, if there is a lot of laughter around the office, chances are people are getting along with each other, highly motivated, and working in a positive and supportive atmosphere. (And if you’re thinking this is a sign that people are slacking off and not getting their work done, think again. Several workplace productivity studies suggest that fun is a key component of success, if only for the simple reason that people perform better when they are enjoying themselves.)
So does all this suggest you need to sign up for a stand-up comedy class or turn into the office joker? Not at all. Demonstrating a healthy sense of humour in the workplace is rarely about telling jokes, and it certainly isn’t about becoming the class clown. In fact, misusing humour is also a terrific way to get yourself noticed (and not in a good way).
They key is to practice “safe humour”: humour that builds rather than divides relationships, humour that laughs with people, not at people. For as much as humour can be a beneficial career skill, we all learn at an early age that humour is also a powerful weapon—a favourite of schoolyard bullies. Therefore, offensive humour—such as sexist or racist jokes—is strictly off-limits during work hours. Sarcastic or bullying humour can also be career-damaging, and many practical jokes have resulted in lawsuits (as in the case of the employee who brought laxative-filled brownies to the office) or outright dismissal.
So what is safe, particularly in this current climate of political correctness? The first rule of safe humour is to take your job seriously, but not yourself. Learn to laugh at your own foibles and the small things that are beyond your control, like the morning traffic jam, that receding hairline, or jammed photocopier. WestJet Airlines, known for creating some in-flight turbulence with their groan-inducing one-liners, keeps their humour safe by poking fun at flight attendants or pilots.
A word of caution, however: don’t laugh too often at those things that are critical to your success. Laughing at yourself when you make a boneheaded blunder is healthy, but if you repeatedly poke fun at your own core competencies, then sooner or later folks might start believing you. Which is why WestJet pilots may joke about their hair or egos, but never about their ability to fly a plane (for this, passengers are eternally grateful).
Practicing smart humour also means keeping the humour relevant. Relevant humour—topics related to your office or profession—will have the greatest impact and is the best kind of humour for creating a sense of shared history and teamwork in a workplace.
Studies on the use of humour in such dry subjects as university level calculus showed that when the instructors incorporated humour that related to the subject at hand, also known as “concept humour,” their credibility increased.
Practicing relevant humour in business presentations keeps the talk on topic, helps people retain the information longer and demonstrates that you know the subject so well you are able to play around with it. And if your audience doesn’t get the humour, nothing is lost because by making the humour relevant you’ve still delivered your message. Smart humour can not only help you get your point across, ideally, it gets people looking at your topic in a new way.
Knowing your audience, whether it’s one or 1,000, is essential. Everyone’s sense of humour is different, so it’s important to respect those differences in a work setting. Different cultures also have very different sensibilities. In Japan, for example, any humour that brings even slight attention to another person is considered not just unfunny, but a social taboo.
Finally, the key to preventing terminal professionalism (symptoms include too many bad hair days, a permanently furrowed brow, strained relationships, and a stalled career) is to give yourself permission to just be yourself and tap into what is thought to be the most human characteristic of all, our sense of humour.
And if someone says, “You can’t be serious!,” tell them they’re absolutely right.
Then tell them the one about the executive who got the bigger bonus . . .
Sidebar: Flexing Your Funny Bone
Want to bring more humour into your work life and fine-tune your humour sense? Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Sidebar: Laughing in the Face of Stress
Michael Kerr is the author of “Inspiring Workplaces” and “You Can’t Be Serious! Putting Humour to Work.” Michael is a Hall of Fame business speaker, very funny motivational speaker, and trainer on the topics of workplace culture, business creativity and humor in the workplace. Reach Michael at 1-866-609-2640 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more free articles, resources, and DVDs on this topic surf on over to www.mikekerr.com . And be sure to sign up for his raved about weekly e-zine, Humor at Work.
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