When I started to think about laughter and humour in the workplace, I was immediately reminded of the now famous Dilbert cartoons. This American comic strip arrived on the scene a little over 25 years ago and has become a wildly popular source of satirical office humour.
Cartoonist Scott Adams seems to have an innate ability to find humour in every element of work, ranging from technology to corporate culture, interpersonal issues and employee-boss relationships. His characters are always commenting on office politics and the many ridiculous decisions that often arise from poor leadership.
In many cases, office humour has been an individual employee effort with the Dilbert cartoons pinned to an office cubicle or taped alongside a computer. Today, leaders are recognizing humour can play a bigger role in creating overall employee job satisfaction and can be a powerful strategy for building a positive corporate culture. In fact, surveys over the years have suggested humour and laughter encourage creativity, fosters positive workplace relationships and helps to create a more human face for your organization.
A study in 2007 by Chris Robert, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, found an individual with a good sense of humour not only showed higher levels of productivity but was also able to communicate more effectively with their boss, co-workers and customers. As well, humour helped to increase an employee's psychological connection with his or her organization and served to improve employee retention overall. As well, leaders with a good sense of humour are known to be more effective at motivating employees, reducing workplace stress and developing effective rapport and communication with their employees. They use their quick wit to develop and maintain morale and to demonstrate overall laughter is a valued characteristic within the workplace.
Yet, while there is an increasing recognition that laughter might be good medicine and humour in the workplace helps to create a psychologically healthy workplace, leaders need to ensure they develop effective strategies and tools to implement humour effectively into our multicultural and multi-generational workplace.
First of all, leaders need to establish some guidelines so workers are encouraged to use appropriate humour in the workplace. For instance, employees need to know any and all efforts at creating humour must make people feel good, release tension and help employees look at the lighter side of life. This means humour must be directed at situations rather than at individuals. Humour that is disrespectful, labels or insults individuals rather than poking fun is unacceptable. Practical jokes and sarcasm, for instance, typically make people feel bad and should be avoided.
Secondly, educate your leaders on how to recognize and effectively deploy the various types of humour. For instance, an individual who uses self-deprecating humour and makes fun of him/herself to relieve tension might overuse this particular style to such an extent that employees become uncomfortable. At the same time, teasing someone for too long creates more harm than good.
One of the key educational elements for leaders is to recognize their own cultural background and preferences toward the use of humour in their life. Next, examine the nature of intercultural biases that might exist in the workforce. Think about cultural elements such as body language, assertiveness, communication style, eye contact, dealing with conflict, dealing with silence, time and physical space. Whereas humour in the workplace is meant to be inclusive, determine the anticipated impact these various cultural elements might have on a strategy to focus on humour in the workplace and make adjustments as required.
At the same time, leaders must be comfortable stepping in when an employee's honest attempt at humour fails and a challenging situation arises. Train your leaders to effectively assess interactions intended to be humorous, accept mistakes and help employees learn how to effectively employ humour in the workplace. Coach your employees rather than policing them for failure.
Implementing humour in the workplace shouldn't be a costly venture in terms of additional resources or personnel time. In its simplest form, leaders should simply look for humour in everyday life and work and to share this with employees. On an individual basis, collect those Dilbert cartoons and discuss them with your team. Perhaps invite others to post a cartoon or humorous quotation on the lunchroom bulletin board or to send them along via your intranet system.
There are also a number of seasonal celebratory events wherein you could implement "fun at work" activities that can encourage humour and laughter. The United Way fundraising campaigns held every fall in Manitoba are a perfect example of opportunities for fun activities. For instance, some organizations take one day per week and participate in events such as emulating American Idol, holding a karaoke party, or having a dress-up day focusing on a specific theme. Still others create teams to compete in food-making contests, book sales and/or a casino night, all to raise money for a worthy cause.
Everyday activities could include such things as encouraging employees to personalize their workspace with fun photos or items that can act as a conversation piece. Create the occasional humorous sign and place it at a popular location where people will see and react to it. Update your staff lunchroom with inspirational posters or have a weekly brain-teaser or puzzle posted on your bulletin board. Be sure to celebrate staff anniversaries and birthdays by giving a humorous card and greeting.
With that traditional Halloween celebration just around the corner, work with your employees to create a fun activity. Decorate the office, create a food exchange for a Friday lunch or bring a specially decorated cookie or cake to top off your day. Not only will employees have a good time, but their attitude and their sense of belonging and fun will spill over into their customer interactions.
It's now become well-known that humour, laughter and fun in the workplace have many benefits, particularly in the area of increasing employee creativity, morale productivity and workplace relationships. So, take the advice of John Cleese, that famous English comedian who says, "If you want creative workers you must give them enough time to play."
Adding to Cleese's advice, I sincerely believe recruiting and selecting employees with a positive attitude and a sense of humour coupled with effective and inclusive fun activities during the year helps to create a more human face for your organization that in turn is more attractive to customers and potential employees alike.
Source: Humor in the workplace, Karen E. Klein, Business Week, November 2007.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed. is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.