Rediscovering our sense of humour at work (review of Humor, Seriously)

I used to have a sense of humour.

In university, I drew a daily cartoon strip for the student paper about a sorority sister and fraternity brother. Profs taped the strip to their office doors. A candidate for student council president promised to ban the strip if elected. He lost.

Early in my career, I put out fake newsletters. These were the early days of PowerPoint presentations, the high water mark for management consultants and the peak of re-engineering the corporation. The zingers wrote themselves. The head of HR thought the union had put out the first newsletter. Lucky for me, he had a sense of humour.

But somewhere along the way, I lost mine and fell off the humour cliff. I can go days without cracking a smile. Weeks without a laugh. I’m not that much fun to be around.

“The collective loss of our sense of humor is a serious problem afflicting people and organizations globally,” say professor Jennifer Aaker and executive coach Naomi Bagdonas, authors of Humor, Seriously. “We’re all going over the humor cliff together, tumbling down into the abyss of solemnity below.”

Aaker and Bagdonas, who teach a humour course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, know the way back up humour mountain. It’s a climb that’ll restore some much needed levity to balance out the gravity of our situations at work and home.  

“We don’t need more ‘professionalism’ in our workplaces,” say Aaker and Bagdonas. “Instead, we need more of ourselves, and more human connection – especially as in-person meetings are replaced by video chats and more relationships are sustained entirely by email. Often, all it takes is a hint of levity to shift a moment, or a relationship, from transactional and robotic to relational and authentic.”

Humour serves up a cocktail of hormones that can make us happier, more trusting and productive, less stressed and even euphoric.

Aaker and Bagdonas have identified four humor styles. While we all have a default mode, our humour styles vary based on our moods, situation and audience.

There are stand-ups who come alive in front of crowds, earnest and honest sweethearts who never tease, magnets with their unwavering good cheer and the edgy, sarcastic snipers with their dry sense of humour and deadpan delivery (take a free quiz to figure out your humour style).

As with everything else, leaders set the tone when it comes to humour at work. It’s less about being funny and more about letting your team know you actually have a sense of humour. Be quick to smile, laugh at other people’s jokes, lean into self-deprecating humour and continually look for ways to break the tension and lighten the mood.

Solemnity can seem like the safer bet. No one gets cancelled for being humourless. Yet you can be funny and stay employed by following two cardinal rules. Never punch down by making fun of someone who’s lower on the org chart. For example, a president who makes fun of an intern is a bully and a jerk.

And never make someone’s identity a prop, plot point or punchline.  “Derogatory humor doesn’t just push boundaries or highlight divisions. It can perpetuate prejudice and impact behavior by those with prejudiced views. It further divides.”

Aaker and Bagdonas close their book with a compelling argument for more levity and humor. No one on their death bed says “if only I had laughed less and taken myself more seriously.”

Sharing a laugh is a tiny expression of love, say Aaker and Bagdonas. “Where there is love, humor is not far behind.  A life of purpose and meaning is a life filled with laughter and levity.”

It’s time we get out of the abyss of solemnity and start scaling humour mountain with Aaker and Bagdonas as our sherpas.

This review first ran in the Feb. 26 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.     

Published by Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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