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Take humor seriously
In 2014, behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker invited Naomi Bagdonas to give a guest lecture as part of her Stanford Business School course “The Power of Story”.
Unknown to many, Ms. Bagdonas, a media and strategy consultant who was doing her MBA at Stanford at the time, also spent evenings and weekends improvising in comedy clubs.
Although the lecture was supposedly about combining stories and data with detours into factor analysis and neurochemistry, Ms. Aaker watched with joy and surprise as the students laughed to tears at Ms. Bagdonas’ delivery. And when the course reviews came in, the students remembered Ms. Bagdonas’s points more clearly and in greater detail than almost any other guest speaker.
Apparently, when stories have power, funny ones have something magical about them.
Ms. Aaker and Ms. Bagdonas are now co-teaching a course at Stanford called Humor: Serious Business that teaches aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs how to use laughter for better relationships and business results. They have also summarized their findings in a new book: “Seriously humor: Why humor is a secret weapon in business and life.”
But can you really teach people to be fun at work? Do you want to teach people to be fun at work?
When you explain a joke, its power dissipates. After all, the whole point of “The Office” is that it is torture to work with a self-proclaimed comedian. And the formulation of humor as a tool for self-improvement is somewhat unsettling and is reminiscent of the image of a sociopath calmly examining the weaknesses of the human psyche in order to exploit them for professional purposes.
Humor at work is much less about cracking wisdom than about recklessness: the shared moments of lightness that drive relationships and balance the seriousness of the work.
There is a striking lack of lightness in many adults, especially in the professional environment. “I didn’t laugh a single time on Tuesday. Not once ”, wrote a Stanford student once in the“ humor audit ”. The instructors ask students to fill them out at the beginning of the semester.
Levity is a powerful bonding agent. A workplace that includes laughter is also likely to foster the types of creativity, authenticity, and psychological security that enable people to do their best. Humor is a Trojan horse for humanity – and that, argue Ms. Aaker and Ms. Bagdonas, is what holds people and organizations together.
DealBook caught up with Ms. Aaker and Ms. Bagdonas through Zoom to learn more about the professional ease, what comedy and sports have in common, and why a leader doesn’t have to be funny to build a team that loves humor. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
DealBook: What Don’t People Get About Humor When They First Walk Into Your Class – Or Open Your Book?
Bogdanos: In the book we break up four myths of humor. The first is the “serious business” myth, which is the idea that recklessness undermines the mission of your job and that if you joke that you cannot take your job seriously. That is simply not true.
Managers with a sense of humor are more motivating and admired. Your employees are more engaged. Your teams are more likely to solve a creative challenge. There’s all of this evidence surrounding the ROI of humor.
And then the myth of failure: people think that failure of humor will have these huge repercussions. We teach our students that it’s so much less about telling jokes. It’s about cultivating joy.
There is a myth of “being funny” that humor is about making jokes. Again, it’s really not about that. It’s about being more generous with your laughter. It’s about naming truths in our life and giving a window into our humanity.
Finally, the “born with” myth that our sense of humor is either there or not. In fact, it’s a muscle that we can work.
You make a great analogy in the book where you compare the relationship between ease, humor, and comedy to the relationship between exercise, exercise, and competitive sports.
Bagdonas: Levity is a mindset, an inherent state of how you approach the world. Similarly, we move through space by moving. Small adjustments in the way we move, or in our attitude towards recklessness, have large adjustments in the way we feel and how people interact with us.
Humor then channels the ease towards those specific goals. When you run, you use exercise in a certain way. With humor you refine the ease to a certain result.
Similarly, with comedy and sports, there are certain steps you can take to get the results you want. Comedians know exactly how to pause before the punchline, how to construct sentences, how to use the “rule of three” or contrast or exaggeration to get the result you want – which, in this case, laughs. It’s exactly how athletes know the exact form they should be using.
That’s a good analogy. You can live a healthy, happy life as someone who exercises regularly but never turns into athletic competition. It sounds like it’s also okay to be a person who values humor but prefers not to be the one who jokes.
Aaker: It’s not about “being funny”. That’s the Michael Scott problem. Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, said, “The easiest way to be funny is by not trying, just looking for moments to laugh about.” This is not about being funny. This is about being generous with laughter. You empower others to use it and you show yourself much more as a person – not a clown.
How can leaders ensure that the humor they encourage is appropriate?
Aaker: Many people who have used humor well in the past often equate humor with their humor. For example: “I just ditched a joke, it didn’t land, I think it would have landed two years ago, so the world is no longer funny.” The calculation is not that the world is humorless per se. The thing is, we need to better understand the variety of styles of humor that other people have and – especially through empathy – better understand how to better read a room and understand the dynamics of status.
What is interesting is that while trust in leadership is falling – which is a problem for leaders who have been using the same old jokes for a while – those organizations that somehow manage to maintain a high-trust environment thrive.
We know that employees who evaluate which characteristics create trust answer as follows: “My boss speaks like a normal person.” We live in an era in which empathy, inclusiveness and authenticity are important for all managers. Humor is actually a secret weapon that can serve you well.
So how can we keep the ease of remote teams alive when you don’t have the personal benefits of facial expression and tone – or feel like you have a lot to laugh about?
Bagdonas: This was such an urgent need that at the start of the pandemic we created a course called Remote Humorous, which is about having humor in remote teams.
Part of that is creating space for it. We need a norm whereby we simply speak like humans at the beginning of every call instead of jumping straight onto the agenda. We talk about what just happened to our kids or whose dog is running around in the background or what a real mishap in people’s lives has happened due to this pandemic.
While it is more difficult to maintain the ease, there are also more creative ways to do it. It’s also more important than ever, because the more technology-driven our communication becomes, the easier it is to leave our humanity and sense of humor at the door. When we talk through machines all the time, it’s easier to act like one too.
When jokes aren’t funny
What counts as a cross-border comedy to one person is downright rude to another. According to Ms. Aaker and Ms. Bagdonas, there are the following rules to self-check to make sure your “material” is not causing pain:
Investigate the Truth. If the humor is removed, is this observation still true or appropriate to share? You take the example of a recently hired Cisco employee who tweeted that he had to “weigh a fat paycheck against … hating work.” It might have been meant as a laugh, but it essentially said that the author didn’t like the potential new employer. The joke failed and the offer was withdrawn.
Look at the pain and the distance. Is it “too early” to crack a crack at a recent worrying event? Are you, the tried wag, not close enough to the subject to really share the pain you want to laugh about?
Read the room. Do people feel like laughing? Are there cultural differences, status differences, or other reasons that your audience may feel uncomfortable about making a joke? The goal of office humor isn’t to get a laugh; So that everyone in the room feels lighter and more comfortable.
Who to watch
Steve Carell’s portrayal of Michael Scott in “The Office” is the perfect case study of how not to be funny at work. For better ideas, Ms. Aaker and Ms. Bagdonas suggest checking out these comedians instead:
Before her social media lip-syncing of former President Donald J. Trump’s public utterances became a hit in the pandemic, the former Google executive trained her comedic visions on meetings, emails, and other workplace absurdities. “Never look for what’s funny,” Ms. Cooper told Stanford students in a guest lecture. “Find what is true and go from there.”
The comedian and writer of shows like “The Good Place” and “The Late Late Show With James Corden” finds this funny in everything, including the tendency of technology to complicate our personal and professional lives.
The presenter of “The Amber Ruffin Show” has been the author of “Late Night With Seth Meyers” since 2014. She appears regularly with co-author Jenny Hagel in the segment “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell”, in which the two women deliver punchlines that would sound wrong in any setting from the mouth of a straight white man.
What do you think? Is work better when there is a sense of humor, or should it be purely business? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.