Recently, I led a workshop on motivation for a group of about 10 people at a small manufacturing company. They came from different shifts and different positions: non supervisory, supervisory, and executive. Before we got started, they were already laughing.They teased the executive about his quirks, and he good-naturedly laughed along. They laughed about pleasant things and about how they’d dealt with unpleasant things. As I expected based on their laughter, it was great workshop with lots of discussion, sharing, questioning, and ideas for tailoring the ideas to match their own environment.
If I wanted one indicator of the health of a workplace, it would be how much people laugh. In addition to smoke detectors, how great would it be if we could (invent) and install laugh-o-meters so we can celebrate laughter and realize when we are starting to take ourselves too seriously?
Lack of humor at work is often attributable to fear. Fearful people don’t laugh. They also tend not to create, share, or willingly back each other up . They don’t pass along information that others need.
Of course all laughter isn’t created equal. It’s no fun to be the butt of a joke that everybody else feels is funny but you feel is humiliating. When some people are laughing and others aren’t, it can be a sign of a status fault line – only people in the in-crowd understand the joke. Humor based on language subtleties sometimes doesn’t translate well, so humor may totally evade non-native speakers.
But when everyone is laughing together in a warm, friendly way, humor can be magical.
What makes humor so effective?
First, humor is often based on the characteristics that make people unique. That awareness of the specific ways that people are different is the first step towards organizing work to use differences well.
Second, I can attest to the fact that being roasted is a great way to feel that people are really looking at you, really paying attention. At my Quarter Century party, my manager went through a presentation of fictitious inventions she had collected from many people who had worked with me. This celebrated my status as Master Inventor and made fun of my quirks:
- Invention of the algorithm which provides accurate pattern matching between your Myers Briggs profile and your bathroom stall selection. (This one was based on a hilarious moment in a panel I moderated.)
- Method and Apparatus for Pain Avoidance While Sitting and Trying to Manage Extremely Long Hair (This was from someone who’d seen me disentangle myself from many chairs.)
- System and Method for Conning Colleagues into Participating in Psychological Research (submitted by one of the people who contributed VIA and MBTI data to my MAPP capstone study),
- System and Method for Billiard Table and Electric Train Set Avoidance in Applications of Ballroom Dancing (My husband and I dance around the edges of our large playroom.)
- System and method for ensuring you have the last word in all technical conversations.
Third, humor is closely associated with positive emotion, which broadens people’s viewpoints and makes them more tolerant and inclusive.
Fourth, laughter feels good. It’s fun. Fluegge demonstrates in her dissertation that ““individuals having fun at work were also more likely to be more engaged in their work, and consequently exhibit greater creative performance. Overall, the findings of this study provide evidence to suggest that fun at work directly and indirectly affects job performance.”
Fifth, a really good laugh creates a shared memory that strengthens the bonds among people. That laugh that followed the INTJ lady saying she always used the same stall in the bathroom and the ESTP lady responding that she always picked different ones is a memory I share with more than 150 people.Sixth, humor takes some of the sting out of stress and trouble. When studying the association between humor and burnout, Talbot and Lumden found “results suggest that when humor is used as a coping mechanism there is a reduction in depersonalization and an increased sense of personal accomplishment.” Fry and colleagues found "the female executives who reported a greater potential for humor and optimism displayed a somewhat stronger resistance to burnout than did the female executives characterized by more perfectionist tendencies."
Laughing at Myself
I find that being able to laugh regularly at myself creates a great buffer. Hawkins defined self-enhancing humor as "having a humorous outlook on life, showing amusement to incongruities in life" and found that it was "was supported by this study as an effective coping mechanism."
So if you hear relaxed laughter in your workplace, rejoice! If you are considering a new workplace, try to hang around and observe whether people laugh often during the course of a day. If laughter is low, Lefcourt suggests the following as good starting points for increasing capacity for humor: "encouragement of flexible thinking, of learning to generate multiple responses to singular stimuli, and lessening the fear of rejection for attempts aat being comical or provoking laughter," (p. 628). I am not good at telling jokes or intentionally being funny, but my laughs are a joyful noise that sends the laugh-o-meter up.
Fluegge, E. R. (2009). Who put the fun in functional? Fun at work and its effects on job performance. Dissertation, University of Florida. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences Vol 69(7-A), 2009, pp. 2781. (I’ve only read the abstract so far.)
Fry, P. S. (1995). Perfectionism, humor, and optimism as moderators of health outcomes and determinants of coping styles of women executives. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 121(2) , 211-245.
Hawkins, D. A. (2009). Comparing the use of humor to other coping mechanisms in relation to Maslach’s theory of burnout. Dissertation, University of Florida. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences Vol 69(7-A), 2009, pp. 2543. (I’ve read only the abstract so far.)
Lefcourt, H. M. (2005). Humor. In Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology , pp. 619-631. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ryan, K. & Oestreich, D. (1998). Driving Fear Out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust, High-Performance Organization (The Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series) (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
From the abstract: High performance, creativity and trust is impossible when people are afraid to tell the truth. With this in mind, this new edition shows managers and executives how to eliminate fear, encourage top employee performance, and increase corporate competitiveness. … They tell us why fearful workers lose pride and motivation, increase defensive behavior, seek revenge, and hide failure. … The authors believe that supporting certain behaviors–respect, honest, constructive feedback, and humor, for instance–is a start.
Talbot, A. & Lumden, D. B. (2000). On the association between humor and burnout. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 13(4) , 419-428.
Barometer 1 courtesy of Thomas Claveirole.
Long hair courtesy of Edward Britton
Hold All My Calls courtesy of furryscaly
Laughing group courtesy of Sulynn. Sulynn is in the center, Kathryn right behind her, and Senia on the right.
Kathryn, you rock!
You put together a revisit of your Quarter Century, and your master inventorship. That is super funny to be about the bathroom stall and MBTI type, especially when you detail it in point #5 about shared memory.
Also, similar to your point #6, I think George Vaillant also defines humor as a coping mechanism. Do you remember that too?
One question… what is the research, or even the anecdotal that laughter doesn’t happen when there is a lot of fear?
Fun! Great weekend!
The Ryan & Oestreich reference that I just added is what led me to the connect fear with absence of humor. Plus a little personal experience.
So true. I’ve always found that the people you work with are what make or breaks a job. That is, unless you’ve found your calling or work alone or whatever. If you’re just talking a “pays the bills” job, people who you can laugh and joke with can turn it from tedious to a pretty good job that you quite look forward to going to.
On an unrelated note, wow, you had long hair!
Thanks for the agreement. I think humor and warmth are important even when you’ve found your calling at work. (And my hair is almost that long now…)
Quick comment and question…lost the other stuff I wrote b/c I didn’t put in the CAPTCHA Code.
Loved the laughter article. Great stuff. Especially the Quarter Century party. Funny.
Question part: I found a new job in record time. Boo-yah. Anyway, I worry that I may have another Machiavellian boss. Any tips on how to neutralize that behavior? My current soulspawn boss is a backstabber. What kind of strategies work to counter that stuff?
The bathroom stalls & MBTI – hilarious!
You are so right, though… FEAR keeps people from laughing, for sure. Especially at work, too. I notice it often when going around campus. I never thought about it that way before, though.
The picture: Love it! 🙂
This is a great insight into how to make the workplace better in many ways.
Next: How can we cultivate humor that we can bring into the workplace? Gratitude lists for gratitude, meditation or Wayne’s software for mindfulness, Loving Kindness meditation for “Positivity”, but what for humor? How about the daily “best of late night” to bring with us? It’s topical and usually mainstream inoffensive…
JSJ, No easy answers for your question about back-stabbing bosses, except to acknowledge that they exist and can have a truly corrosive effect on people. I’ve coached people on this subject, and the first step is to acknowledge the situation — give it a name — and then be sure not to internalize it. Jane Dutton has a chapter on the subject of Corrosive Connections in her book, Energize Your Workplace, that has several strategies — bound and buffer, create a sense of control, buttress and strengthen, target and transform — to pique your interest. BTW, I’m sorry about the Captcha — I’ll ask Senia to move it up, so you have to see it before you push Submit Comment.
Nick, I still laugh when I remember the bathroom stall discussion — so spontaneous, such peals of laughter.
LRMM, Cultivating humor can be thought of from several different points of view. My husband searches the Internet for jokes when we have regular dinners with friends because he wants to be able to lighten what is not always a light-hearted mood. Some people just tell jokes naturally — I knew one manager who always sent people away from his status meetings laughing. But just being able to see humor is important and respond to it in an uninhibited fashion is important too. That’s where Lefcourt’s suggestions come in.
Maybe some of the other articles this month will yield more definite action suggestions. If not, maybe I can write more about it next month. At Senia’s suggestion, I was trying to keep my article short(er) this month.
Kathryn, I did one thing right. I gave out around 100 thank you notes to all of the coworkers who were kind to me. They were very sympathetic. Hopefully they will know what my boss is doing and avoid getting burned or ambushed.
I did indeed internalize the problem. I feel scared that the new job I just landed will end up like this one…backstabbed and unemployed. That’s a frightening and disheartening image. I’ve had a spate of crummy supervisors.
Don’t cut your articles short!!! That is a Big Mistake! The long ones are rich tapestries to explore and to linger upon. The short ones are merely teasers. Your feedback is welcome and superb because it has no flim flammery and always cites the references so I can look to the source.
Until next time,
I was just reading Energize Your Workplace by Jane Dutton. Given my recent life events…not being asked back at work and now an upcoming new job…plus my interest in motivation, which is another way of saying energization, and of PP where Other People Matter”, I’ve come to a conclusion. I think Other People Motivate or Demotivate. It sounds so Duh, but really a lot of cognitive psychology is about what happens between the ears.
Reading about Gayle, the pseudonym or character composite in Dutton’s book, I saw big parallels in my own workplace. We have a big-time corrosive connection. Just a few days short of my last day on the job, she’s still trying to get my reputation destroyed. Every time I have to work with the corrosion, it saps so much time-energy. Laughter dies on the vine in these encounters. The only laughter is sarcastic & hurtful.
In fact, in the very highest performing teams I’ve ever witnessed, those high quality connections are tying everyone together. There’s no room for corrosion. Otherwise they stop being high performing. There’s no trust, no reciprocity, none of the good stuff.
Motivating the self alone is hogwash. Motivation comes from a team effort. Thank you for a great read with Dutton’s Energize Your Workplace.
I passed your praise on to Jane Dutton, who responded thanks! for sending it her way.
I so so so agree with you about team motivation. Hmmm maybe a topic for another month. Or perhaps you’d like to write it?
Why thank you very much. I agree with your agreement. That was unexpected and kind of you to pass words on to Dr. Dutton. As for the article writing, I think I may save that for those more suited to writing articles. I will, however, comment on the work of others.
Let me just say, there would be no great achievments without supportive teams. It does not ever happen, ever. To the inevitables of death and taxes, I would add teamwork. You’re probably asking, where is the hard research? I haven’t done my homework on that yet.
Experientially though, see if this doesn’t jive with your observations. Even someone who is gritty & talented needs other people to react to their achievements, relate to, and celebrate. You have got to have the right spouses, friends, family, mentors, teachers, and fans. Possession of these is a great advantage while the lack of the above…OR THE WRONG ONES…will stymie any efforts, no matter how strong. What then makes a good team? That varies according to the desired result and other personal variables of the goal seeker. Teams are the enviromental factor which causes high motivation or low motivation. What I once thought of as a mysterious internal response, actually fits well with the behaviorist tradition of examining environmental factors. Yes, there are cognitive factors, no question. They conform to environmental (team) factors, though and teams should be a prime target of good motivation sleuthing. Teams should be the first place to troubleshoot.
Teams are force multipliers. Seligman’s achievment formula (Achievement = Talent + Optimism + Motivation) is still true, but I would break motivation down to two main factors. M = T x G where T is the right Team and G is Grit (as in Duckworth’s definition). I see it with students all the time. The wrong Team will ruin their chances of success and lack of Grit will derail the right team. Schools exist because they team to keep kids safe and productive (they often fail, but that’s a side story).
We all know the story of the 1990’s and the so-called Japanese management systems which overtook the American auto industry. Theirs was a solution-focused, team approach I think. I really believe in my heart of hearts that the biggest key to increased motivation and grit is through proper teaming.
I like you Kathryn.
Play puts laughter at attention then shoots off fireworks of fun. Bring it on! Great article.
Very vivid image – the fireworks of fun. There is an element of unexpectedness. Thanks!
Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips. I always enjoy reading something new and useful.