Laughter and Humor in the Workplace

A software developer, a CEO and a duck went into a bar …. Just kidding J. I am not suggesting that project managers should be standup comedians. However, I believe that there is a significant role for humor to play in effective management. Humor makes the workplace more enjoyable and can bond a team.  Many healthcare professionals and psychologists advocate laughter as good medicine for us. It has been stated that, “Laughter and humor help you stay emotionally healthy.” Humor can make an unpleasant message easier to take – shared misery is often easier to accept than the misery that flows only one way. Seeing the funny side makes situations tolerable and improves people’s outlook on the project!

Humor lets you acknowledge a problem or difficult situation without appearing defensive.

  • ”There a few things in life harder to find and more important to keep than love. Well, love and a birth certificate.’’ —President Barack Obama, at the 2010 White House Correspondents’ Dinner
  • In 1984, Reagan wanted to confront concerns that he was too old for a second term as president. His, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience” was often quoted and remembered, while the issue of his age went to a back burner.

Humor can make a point and teach correct behavior, while bringing a smile to those being chastened.  Every profession or role has those industry jokes and humor.  I especially like these example quotes from Tech Support, which I selected from over 60 comments at Computer Jokes – a Few Words from Tech Support.

  • When you call the help desk, state what you want, not what’s keeping you from getting it. We don’t need to know that you can’t get into your mail because your computer won’t power on at all.
  • Don’t put your phone extension in your emails to the help desk. We need to keep an eye on the address book performance.
  • Send urgent email all in uppercase. The mail server picks it up and flags it as a rush delivery.
  • When a tech tells you that computer monitors don’t have cartridges in them, argue. We love a good argument.
  • When the printer won’t print, re-send the job at least 20 times. Print jobs frequently get sucked into black holes. When the printer still won’t print after 20 tries, send the job to all 68 printers in the building. One of them is bound to work.

How about the list of PM jokes that Gary put together at his CVR site or Roger Darlington’s, “How to have a good meeting”? Many project managers keep a list of good jokes and funny stories handy so that when they need to diffuse a situation, speak to a set of stakeholders, or just motivate the team, they can use one of the many jokes that are on the internet (like Duncan Haughey’s Top 10 lists)

What humor is not

Humor is not making fun of someone in an effort to change behavior or diminish him or her in the eyes of their peers. Do not make humor personal to a named person or even with the intent that it focuses on one person (Unlike our late night comedians) because it is ultimately hurtful and not funny.  Humor should not be sarcasm disguised with a smile – “just kidding.” Humor is not hurtful, malicious or disrespectful. Humor in the workplace should not include jokes or comments about a person’s appearance, sexuality or religion – can you spell lawsuit?

How to use humor

For humor to be effective there has to be some truth in it – something that listeners can relate to. Like many cube rats, I relate to Scott Adam’s Dilbert. He shows how bureaucracy and greedy people take away individuality and productivity in the work place. Scott Adams, once remarked that when you verbalize what everyone else is thinking, you in effect “take the hit” for them, allowing them the privilege of laughing. Some organizations have a Dilbertization committee to point out procedures or messages that could make it into a Dilbert cartoon if not corrected. It is okay to acknowledge situations that make everyone’s job a bit harder than necessary. Be willing to make fun of yourself and your flaws or failures.

Humor does not have to be verbal. Putting a slinky on your desk or posting a cartoon can put a smile on team members faces. Encourage team members to post their favorite cartoons in a common area. Laugh and enjoy friendly, funny interactions.  As those who work with me know, I love and use the humor of Scott Adam’s with his Dilbert character – since he worked in a highly project oriented telecom company he had some unique insights into the world that we face every day.

Here’s one more appropriate Dilbert

How do you use humor in your project management job? Do you have examples of good and bad uses of humor? Please share.

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