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Laughter is serious business.

Building a powerful organizational culture is all the rage these days.

We have realized relaxed dress codes, random pizza parties and billiards tables in the break room aren’t exactly what employees have in mind.

Especially when the culture-king is revealed to have no clothes by relentlessly increasing workloads, unhealthy “do more with less” approaches, post-pandemic challenges and organizational stresses such as layoffs.

Leaders recognize employees want a healthy culture which drives retention and performance, and employees aren’t interested in milquetoast efforts aimed at corporately enforced culture.

Culture building is a complex topic but one aspect squarely inside my lane is humor.

Whether building teams as a Regional Sales Manager, my role as Corporate Training & Development Manager or my personal business providing training insights, humor is a key driver for my results.

The reasons are not why you might imagine.

Loads of scientific studies delve into the connection between human interactions and humor.

Alexandra Michel discussed a study conducted by Christopher Oveis of the University of California in her 2017 article from Psychological Science

“Laughing in the presence of others indicates the interaction is safe”.

Safe Interactions

Put all the studies, big words and fancy-pants papers to the side.

  • Was there a time in your career when you expressed an idea to a leader who dismissed it?

  • Did you ever feel doubt about expressing a proposal to a room full of people who could act on it?

  • Can you remember a time when you had a suggestion but the leadership in the room were so inaccessible and imposing you didn’t dare share it?

  • Do you remember a time in your life when you hesitated to share an idea with your peers?

No really, think back to the early days of your working life. Back when you were junior to the junior 3rd shift janitor.

Not all of you came out of the womb as Gordon Gekko and Steve Jobs mashups so put that rubbish away.

That second guessing, that self-doubt, that reservation, that hesitation that resulted in you holding back & pulling your punches from adding to the discussion with senior leaders when you were starting out?

Your teams have that today too.

You need to work to create a safe environment for them to express themselves.

The State of Workplace Safety Report from 2022 shows the importance of being safe (47%), professional development (43%) and employee happiness (38%) to retention strategies. Loads of other research shows the importance of these and other non-compensation topics driving employee satisfaction.

Humor is a totally free and powerful tool to build authentic safe connections with your teams.

  • I experience it regularly while delivering training. People are naturally awkward and insecure when learning new skills and information so it’s a strong analog to this topic.

  • What is a key weapon to removing mental insecurities and self-imposed barriers so people can onboard knowledge and share their thoughts, often with a room of strangers or peers?

Humor. Humor is an equalizer.

Poking fun at myself, acknowledging universally funny situations and presenting with a touch of humorous flare lowers those mental reservations so I get the real training response not the canned answer they think I want.

Humor makes it safe for someone to attempt a skill they’re learning and fail. It reduces the distraction of fear of looking silly so they can honestly attempt the skill.

That “real training response” helps me identify the correct next step to help them develop and evaluate their suitability in role.

Isn’t that what you want from your teams: the real input instead of what they think you want to hear?

Humor is a way to get people step beyond their self-imposed barriers and actually tell you the information you need to make decisions because they feel safe to do so.

There’s no humor in business.

Don’t think humor is appropriate in a business setting?

You talk about building a family with your teams.

Do actual families frantically hyper-focus on getting things done, hitting operational goals, measuring KPIs, checking dashboards?

While of course we need to accomplish tasks (and cultural differences aside), familial bonds are often strengthened by humorous situations.

A common joy of most parents is hearing their young children laugh.

Why would that joy be less diminished simply because we’re wearing khakis and corporate branded shirts?

People enjoy humor.

Sara Karlovitch reports on that consumers want humor from brands and its effect on everything from retention, email open rates and customer experience. reports in-person comedy clubs, even post pandemic are a $328 million dollar industry. com shows comedy movies grossing nearly $700 million in revenue in 2022.

People enjoy and want laughter in their daily lives. Why would this desire for humor end simply because they’re sitting in a cube?

Business is serious business.

And let’s be direct, while I fully recognize you carry real weight on your shoulders, the fate of nations doesn’t hang in the balance during your meetings about toothpaste marketing campaigns.

I know your teams aren’t aware of the weighty decisions you make. The ones that keep you up at night. The ones you consider in your mind while talking to your kids or partner.

I recognize and respect that responsibility you wield.

But “all business all the time” robs you of opportunities to put another brick in the culture foundation to build an environment where teams can operate at a higher level.

People want to feel connected to leadership.

If even in casual interactions you present an overbearing persona of non-stop pseudo-terminator style executive-robot you’re robbing yourself of chances for actual personal connections.

Connections forged through humor.

Humor is not appropriate for all meetings and conversations. I’m not suggesting you crack jokes in a discussion about legal matters or when considering RIFs.

But for both interpersonal interactions and meetings about less weighty topics humor is a one-way ticket to building a safe environment and a human bond to you.

  • To reduce those self-imposed mental barriers your team has about speaking up

  • To open the doors of resistance from younger team members who have your next million-dollar idea

  • To help your team relax from the pressures THEY may be carrying

  • To humanize you

But I’m the leader!

The relationship between you and your team is naturally one of dominance. The mood will always change when “mom” or “dad” walk in the room.

But, shockingly, studies show you eat, have imaginary arguments in the shower and trip over doorways like the rest of us.

Of course, you need to maintain professionalism and I’m not suggesting you give a stand-up comedy routine.

But using humor displays your humanity. Your accessibility. You’re just a person.

When done well, it bridges the gap between dominant and subservient roles.

It takes the focus off you as a BOSS and highlights you just a different team member with different skills and with a different role to play in the organization.

It cuts the tension of “the big kahuna” in the discussion so people can focus on the task at hand.

By doing that you build an environment where people’s ideas, thoughts and contributions are more freely shared.

Final Thoughts…

Leaders should always be careful their humor isn’t used to harm others, put them down or “remind them of their place”.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Poking fun at people as if it were a sports team locker room (or to remind them you are the boss) just skylines you as a jerk and a bully.

Poking fun at a peer over a SHARED experience you both find humorous is something different.

And obviously considering what people might find offensive and respecting cultural differences is important too.

What counts as “humor” is another topic for a different day.

But if you want to

  • Build a safe environment where people feel free to share ideas

  • Reinforce an aspect of corporate culture that drives retention and performance

  • Subtly remind your team to play their roles and not focus on yours

Humor is a free, powerful and amazing effective tool at your disposal.

Adam Spacht

KAS Concepts

Adam is a corporate training manager by day and the founder of KAS Concepts, home of No Boring Training. His personal content can be found on LinkedIn and YouTube

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