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  • Simon Boardman

The Great Sense of Humor Failure

These days people work hard at being serious. We think that being serious is the only way to be taken seriously. Being serious is a serious business. Other experts suggest some of us are wired that way. You know those sober types with no sense of humor might be victims of heredity. If true, they are either incapable of or at least severely challenged with, humor. Or people might just be miserable finding humor in short supply. According to research, humor and seriousness are not always at odds in business. In fact, if we want to get on in life we better get serious about being funny. Hey, I'm not joking…this is my job. Let me explain.

Dwight Eisenhower said, "A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done." If Dwight D. Eisenhower, the second least naturally funny president after Franklin Pierce, thought humor was necessary to beat Nazis, build highways, and warn against the military-industrial complex, then you better learn it too." (Joel Stein in Humor Is Serious Business - Insights by Stanford Business, July 11, 2017). But it doesn't seem like people take fun seriously based on the volumes of research concluding we're unhappier, more stressed and that the anxiety index is at an all-time high. According to Alison Beard in the Harvard Business Review from May 2014 …" as the MBA candidate Eric Tsytsylin recently put it in a video presentation featured on the Stanford website, working adults are "in the midst of a laughter drought." Babies laugh, on average, 400 times a day; people over 35, only 15. A recent study of Gallup data for the U.S. found that we laugh significantly less on weekdays than we do on weekends. Work is a sober endeavor." It's a mean old scene; here are some thoughts as to why:

  • First, we've become conditioned to take things (including ourselves) more seriously. From the pop videos of the 80's that taught us all to "strike a pose," to the seriousness of the "if it bleeds, it leads" evening news. Modern TV and on demand programming have all adopted a consistent and alarming "under siege" motif. Political correctness has reached epidemic proportions where it's best not to take the risk of saying anything humorous or laugh at someone else's humor. Why take the chance of being misinterpreted? Best to say nothing and keep a poker face. These are all sobering themes that create a sense of regular restlessness and persistent precariousness. Not too many laughs here. Following the herd mentality, everyone rushes to adopt an earnest approach. We believe that if we can't take ourselves seriously, who can? We fail to see that self-deprecation can be a powerful tool and that appropriately used humor can lighten the load. "Self-deprecation humanizes leaders, creates connections with employees, and makes people think the self-deprecator is even more powerful than she is: After all, if she can afford to mock herself, she must be confident in her abilities." (Insights by Stanford Business, July 11, 2017, by Joel Stein) You see, there's even a serious reason to do it, it makes you seem stronger.

  • Second, some might be hard wired to be serious. Incapable of humor, or at least incapable of making humor appear natural. Let's face it; there's nothing worse than a futile attempt at humor by the boss, followed by the forced, failing and fatuous laughter of the staff. It's like finger nails on a chalk board. Yuval Noah Harari in his best selling book Homo Deus - A Brief History of Tomorrow subscribes to the view that there is no free will on how we behave, and can, therefore, exercise no more choice on humor than any other emotion. We are governed by the biology of our systems and the electromagnetic pulses in our brains. Is he also saying that we are all victims of biological heredity and therefore cannot exercise choice to be more, or less, serious, – we're either built that way or not. Maybe so, but we can identify our weaknesses (or can at least rely on our "friends" to point them out!), and then manage them accordingly. If one accepts an active and worthwhile role for humor in the office, then one needs to orchestrate it at least or encourage and accommodate it. There is plenty of evidence to support humor as a positive force in the business world. According to Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas; "humor is an effective and under-leveraged tool for power, offering a competitive advantage against peers, higher retention rates of employees, innovative solutions, and teams that are more resilient to stress." There doesn't appear to be much evidence of the acceptance of humor as a positive force in business. These days it's all big stick and stack ranking rather than whoopee cushions and exploding cigars. What a shame.

  • Third, we might just be miserable, and we might have good reasons. Travis Bradberry, the coauthor of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 and the co-founder of TalentSmart, claims that recent research from the American Psychological Association reported that 75% of American workers identify their boss as the worst and most stressful part of their job and 60% of US workers would take a new boss over a pay raise. That's enough to wipe the smile off anyone's face. Referring to Yuval Noah Harari in Home Deus once more; he claims that we are struggling to find meaning in our lives due to a decline in spiritual belief. Spiritual emptiness has resulted from the destruction of God by science. The subsequent adoption of modernity and liberal humanism has not yet enabled our new gods (ourselves) to deliver meaning to the depth achieved by our previous deities. Now that's serious stuff!

Well, it all sounds a bit grim. Circumstances, heredity, and a lack of vision are making it harder to be humorous. We intuitively know that humor adds to the enjoyment and the research shows that humor helps teams and companies be more resilient, creative and group-oriented. My advice is to orchestrate, tolerate and practice humor in the work place. When we ran our business, our natural dispositions were more humorous than deadly serious. This habit led to a "lighter touch" and helped create a more enjoyable environment. For example, at our weekly all hands meetings, one of the agenda items was always a discussion of the previous night's episode of the then popular soap opera; Melrose Place, just to get things going on a lighter note! We held meetings outside of the office; in restaurants, coffee shops and beer gardens, again to disrupt the daily grind. The point is that we felt it important to encourage some spirited humor, light-hearted discourse and we organized an environment conducive to that. It's all about finding the right balance for the circumstances. Perfect a formula that combines good-natured humor but stops short of trivializing serious business. Are we dealing with important issues in commerce? Well, some more than others, but we are all helping our clients run their businesses better and serve their customers, and in so doing we provide livelihoods for our people. This work is important stuff – but it doesn't mean we can't laugh while we get through some of that inevitable daily routine.

So, in the words of one of our favorite movie Sergeants, Sgt Hulka in Stripes, "lighten up…. Francis."

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