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Is Humor in the Workplace an HR Risk or Opportunity?


Is Humor in the Workplace an HR Risk or Opportunity?

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”- -E.B. White

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Many people have been known to confess to a variety of personal faults. Sheepishly they may admit to not being able to remember names of people or having a poor sense of direction (I have one friend who is, 95% of the time, 180 degrees wrong in her decision of which way to turn). They may even brag about how poor they are at something. “You think you’re bad at remembering names? I forgot my wife’s name – so I just call her dear, or sweetie.” But I have never heard any one lay claim to not having a sense of humor – in fact, a great sense of humor. “Nope, I don’t find anything funny. Never have, never will. They day they were handing out a sense of humor, I was over at the brains counter.”

So, if we all believe that we have a good sense of humor, why is the workplace such a grim place? Why do so many people hunch down in their cubicles, and munch their lunch in solitude? There seems to be a pervasive attitude that work shouldn’t be fun. If it were supposed to fun it wouldn’t be called work!

Developing Creativity

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I have found, in my own consulting and training business, that I have had to “disguise” the content of humor workshops by re-naming them something that will be more acceptable either to upper management (in the case of private sector) or to the tax payer (in the case of public sector areas). The concern, at least of the latter, is that a daily newspaper will publish a headline something along the lines of: Civil Servants Have Fun at Taxpayers’ Expense! So, personally, I call humor workshops Developing Creativity.

Albert von Szent-Gyorgy wrote: "Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought." With apologies to this noted Hungarian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1937 for discovering vitamin C, I modified his observation, and describe Humor (and thus creativity) as “Looking at what everybody else is looking at, but seeing something different”.

Humor Comes with Risk

So, humor at work is not just about telling jokes – although in psychologically healthy work environments, people will tell jokes. And it’s not only about pulling pranks on unsuspecting office mates, although in creative organizations, pranks will be played. Are there potential problems here? You bet! Are they inevitable? Perhaps. Should the existence of potential problems deter us from following a path that can lead to better staff relations, improved productivity, and increased creativity? Subsequent articles will cover how humor can be introduced and cultivated (without a visit from the PCP – Politically Correct Police).

You can, of course, continue to be a vanilla organization. There is nothing wrong with being average – 2/3 of companies are. Or, you can take the great and fearsome leap into the unknown. High risk, high reward. And the reward? As Bill Cosby said: “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”