Humor in the workplace
Michael Kerr is an international Hall of Fame business speaker who travels the world researching, writing, and speaking about inspiring workplace cultures that drive outrageous results. The president of Humor at Work took some time out of his busy schedule to educate us about the power of humor and how it can help any business succeed.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

I am known as one of North America’s leading authorities on workplace culture and how humor can help drive business results. I’m the author of six books, including Inspiring Workplaces and The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing All the Way to the Bank. I’m also a regular contributor to Business Insider, and my ideas on building great workplace cultures have been featured in hundreds of publications worldwide.

What characterizes a “purpose-driven workforce,” and how can a leader help his or her employees become purpose-driven?

A purpose-driven organization is intentionally focused on a crystal clear vision as to why it exists. By defining a strong sense of purpose, it also understands what it doesn’t want to be; and these organizations use this overarching sense of purpose to not only guide their business decisions, but also as a means of engaging and igniting employees’ passion for their work around a common purpose. An international Mercer survey found that a strong sense of purpose in one’s work is one of the top motivational influences, and inspiring leaders play a key role by constantly communicating that purpose, reminding their employees of what their “why” is, and connecting employees’ specific jobs to the larger overall goal. Being purpose-driven keeps employees engaged and helps destroy silos at work by reminding employees that they are all working towards a common goal.

Leaders also play a key role by recognizing and celebrating their employees’ contributions to their company’s purpose – whether it’s by sharing the impacts on their customers’ lives or by recognizing employees’ specific contributions to their mission in meaningful ways. Being open and honest with their communication and asking employees for their input helps connect employees to a sense of purpose by making employees feel involved in the larger goals of the company.

We periodically see lists of the “best places to work” in America.

How can a leader transform his or her company into a place where people enjoy working and want to work?

First and foremost, the leader must recognize that culture is the key driver of success and that great cultures don’t just happen by accident. You can’t fake a great culture, and you can’t buy your culture at Costco! Inspiring leaders understand that it takes a real commitment to being intentional about their culture. Leaders need to ask employees what their “on” and “off” switches are when it comes to creating a great work environment and recognize that everyone has different motivational triggers. And leaders need to stop de-motivating their employees. They do this by eliminating the things that are driving their employees nuts and focusing on the things they can control that we know from the research has a far greater impact on engagement than money. Money is a great motivator when it comes to getting people to return to work week after week; but in order to truly engage hearts and minds and convert long-term employees into loyal ambassadors for your organization, you need to relentlessly foster a culture of respect, involvement, and appreciation to build a great workplace.

Why is it important for a manager or executive at a company to have a sense of humor?

Numerous studies and surveys reveal that people want to be led by people who have a good sense of humor, and that there is a positive correlation between humor and leadership skills. A Bell Leadership survey found that the two top traits employees said they wanted from their leader was a strong work ethic and a healthy sense of humor. When leaders can laugh at themselves and bring their sense of humor along for the ride, it helps set the tone for the entire workplace atmosphere. Leaders are like orchestra conductors who play a pivotal role in creating the mood in any office; and when they share a healthy, positive sense of humor, it helps everyone feel more relaxed.

Humor also helps leaders come across as more humble, sincere, trustworthy, and approachable. By showing they can laugh at themselves, humor helps leaders come across as more human, and it levels the playing field in a hierarchy. The ability of humor to make leaders more approachable is one of the most important benefits of humor at work; it helps ensure that employees are open and honest with their communication, and it increases the likelihood that they will share both difficult information and innovative ideas with their leader.

If someone were to tell you, “Humor in the workplace is unimportant, and these distractions can even reduce productivity,” what would be your response?

The evidence is overwhelming that more humor can be both a key driver of success at work and also that humor reflects success at work; in other words, there’s a chicken and egg relationship. Again, it goes back to understanding that your culture is your #1 competitive advantage, and that humor plays a key role in creating the kind of workplace environment where people want to work. When I talk about the use of humor at work, I’m not talking about telling jokes or being the office clown, and I’m certainly not talking about taking your work lightly. It’s about creating a sense of humanity at work, allowing employees to bring their authentic selves into work, and being able to laugh at ourselves and the things we have no control over at work in order to take our work seriously and be even more professional, not less.

Humor doesn’t just improve the morale and happiness levels of employees (which we know from studies correlate directly with productivity); humor also helps people communicate more effectively, lowers stress levels, reduces employee absenteeism and turnover rates, increases sales, and improves customer service. And there’s a huge correlation between humor and innovation. Add all those factors up and humor can’t help but have a positive impact on any business’s bottom line and productivity. More and more businesses are also finding they can attract higher-quality employees by using humor to brand themselves as a great place to work. Once you’ve become the hunted, it’s much easier to find better-qualified candidates who will help you drive even greater business results.

Is it possible to find humor in industries or cultures which are often perceived as being staid or dull?

It is possible to find humor everywhere; in fact, the more serious the nature of the work is, the more humor is needed! And indeed, you can find outrageous examples of humor at work in funeral homes, emergency rooms and, yes, even in accounting departments. Often, people will tell me that humor is a necessity in high-stress work environments that helps them keep their sanity and maintain a high level of professionalism. As the CEO of Argus Industries told me, “Work is hard enough without making it any harder – that’s why we embrace a lot of humor and fun in our business.”

Given that humor often has the propensity to become inappropriate, what are some general guidelines that you recommend when it comes to humorous topics and subject matter?

All of my research has shown that in those organizations most known for their high levels of humor and fun, inappropriate humor is rarely, if ever, an issue. That’s because you typically get the kind of humor that reflects your culture. So if you have a respectful culture where employees feel valued and appreciated, the humor will be respectful. And the odd time that people cross the line with their humor, managers consistently tell me that the benefits of humor vastly outweigh any risks; and in those situations where someone may have overstepped, they’ll simply have a conversation with that individual rather than taking measures that might stifle the entire workplace environment.

And when people do engage in sarcastic or other passive aggressive forms of humor, smart leaders should be listening carefully and read between the punchlines to understand what is really being communicated. Some employees may feel that their only means of sharing some uncomfortable workplace truths is under the cover of a humorous quip. Having said that, of course the use of humor in a workplace setting does need to be positive; and so people should consider the timing, the context, and the relationship of the people involved. Religious, political, ethnic, and sexist humor should be considered off limits. A simple approach to keep in mind is that it should be about laughing with people, never at people. And we need to remind everyone in our workplaces that first and foremost, a healthy sense of humor is about laughing at ourselves; after all, is it not a truism that the more seriously a person takes himself or herself, the less seriously everyone tends to take that person?

Can you tell us about some innovative ways that humor can be integrated into a workplace?

There are literally thousands of ways to inject more humor into any workplace. Some are small and simple: a humor bulletin board, funny quote of the day board, or humorous signs are simple ways to add some levity. Creating a team humor first-aid kit stockpiled with funny resources, holding a recognition ceremony with humorous offbeat awards, work-related contests, stupid human trick talent nights… the list is truly endless. Two key areas to focus on, though, are traditions and meetings. Traditions and rituals are extremely important ways to build a stronger culture; they give employees something to look forward to, something to reminisce about, and create a sense of shared history and experience that is so vital when it comes to building a strong culture. And there’s no end of fun traditions that can be created. For example, a simple tradition that one consulting company does is “Third Person Thursdays,” where everyone talks about themselves in the 3rd person. Some teams have wacky traditions to celebrate a major sale, to kick off their work week with, or to close out the end of the week.

Looking for opportunities to inject humor into meetings is another key way to integrate more humor. Meetings should create and reflect the kind of workplace culture you want to foster, so how you conduct your meetings is critical. Humor in meetings also helps open up communication and drives creativity, so consider holding theme meetings, opening up meetings with a funny icebreaker, having a humor break in the middle of the meeting where everyone shares a funny work-related moment or blooper, or assigning a “meeting jester” to help ensure the meetings’ rules are followed in a fun way. Never lose sight of the fact that most humor happens naturally and spontaneously; so more than anything else, it’s about creating that respectful, positive work environment where people feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves into work every day.

What kinds of responses have you gotten from people and companies who have attended your talks and keynotes?

The responses are overwhelmingly positive. For many, it hits home at an individual level. I’ve had audience members get in touch months or even years later sharing how they changed how they viewed their work and life after one of my presentations. Other clients have reported back on how their entire team or business has shifted after taking the messages to heart and implementing new ideas. I think once people see so many examples from organizations around the world, they realize that this isn’t just theoretical, and they understand real change is both possible and highly desirable!

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