A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Office

Engaging Others with Good Humor at Work

“Right now, this is a job. If I advance any higher, this would be my career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.” — Jim Halpert, character on the TV series The Office.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Office: Engaging Others with Good Humor at Work by Laura StackClearly, work is no laughing matter. It’s where you spend a good third of your life, focused on the things that really matter so you can out-produce your competitors and flood the bottom line with black ink. Some people forget that work is just a part of life—you’re not supposed to live to work—and they become consumed by it. Yes, you should enjoy your work and even be just as passionate about it as your personal life, but don’t take it so seriously! Some people need to lighten up a bit to avoid a coronary (you know who you are).

Humor Has Its Place
Too many people go through life dragged down by worries. But you really aren’t Atlas, even when it feels the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Sometimes it takes some effort to force a smile and attempt cheerfulness when life has you down. But with a few purposeful humor techniques, you can self-encourage enthusiasm and excitement about your job. Those who laugh often suffer less depression, and some studies suggest they avoid the more physical manifestations of stress as well.

I’m not telling you to run around in a rainbow clown wig and do impersonations of the boss (a dangerous practice at best), but there’s no reason why you can’t leave behind a good word or a joke here and a smile there to lighten up yours and someone else’s day. Try to inject some good humor into these situations:

1. While waiting for meetings to begin. When the senior leader is running late from a previous meeting and everyone is milling about, don’t just ignore everyone with your head in your phone. It’s a great opportunity to build relationships and engage your fellow coworkers in conversation. Ask someone, “What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?” Even asking, “What’s new in your world?” will yield some great insights. Or ask for an opinion on an unrelated project on your plate.

2. During presentations. As long as it has to do with your topic and makes a good point afterward, a joke or funny story lightens the mood and helps your audience members retain information longer. A friend of mine remembers well a presentation by an archeologist in a college class more than 20 years ago, when the instructor included some corrections for measurements of prehistoric stone spear points. One of them had been erroneously published as being over an inch thick. “Of course,” the teacher said, “that would be excessive for any prey animal…except maybe this one!” whereupon he displayed a slide of a rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Everyone had a good laugh—and never forgot the presentation.

3. As a creativity tool. One manager once had his team don Donald Duck glasses before a strategic planning session, as a symbolic way of focusing their vision and harnessing creativity. It let the more childlike sides of the team members emerge, got their creative motors running, and united them with a shot of humor. Using squeeze toys and colorful markers can bring out the playful, creative side in a serious matter, helping the team break through barriers.

4. As a way to break down barriers between groups. When you get together and have fun with other departments and divisions, you’re less likely to see internal squabbling, data hoarding, bottlenecking, and other negative behaviors common to organizations. The Tennessee Valley Authority holds charity water balloon fights during work hours, and they hold dress-up days, encouraging the executives to come to work wearing costumes. One of my colleagues puts together game shows for corporate events, where senior leaders face off in trivia contests about company facts.

5. To lighten the emotional tone of your group. Cheerfulness and lighthearted conversation can cool down a tense tone during difficult times and ease the flow of communication. Having a positive attitude costs you nothing, and it will usually engage the follow-the-leader effect. If you’re happy, your team will follow your lead as the role model and try their best to be happy as well. They may be laughing at your bad jokes out of kindness, but there are worse fates.

A Spoonful of Sugar
Humor should never exceed the bounds of taste or hurt anyone’s feelings. The best thing to joke about? Yourself. When you poke fun at yourself, people can laugh with you, and they won’t get defensive wondering if there’s an inside meaning to your “jokes.” Most people find laughter and overall good humor attractive in others. So try some humor—it might just help you lighten up and keep everyone else engaged as well.

© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

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