Humor at work can make work fun. It can defuse tense situations, prevent difficult situations from becoming more difficult, and clarify points that might otherwise have remained murky. Being uproariously funny on a consistent basis does take some skill. Fortunately, consistent uproariosity isn't important at work. Two things do matter. First, it's important to be funny enough often enough to keep your team out of trouble. And second, it's important not to hurt anyone or set the team back in its path to making progress together.
And that second item is the focus of this post — managing the risks of using humor at work. Here are some guidelines for avoiding trouble when using humor at work.
- Connect to the here and now
- Prepared humorous stories ("canned jokes") might be funny over the dinner table or along the sidelines of a children's soccer game. But they're of little value at work because they so rarely connect with the present situation. Moreover, they often sound practiced.
- Be funny
- Perhaps the most critical attribute of any attempt at humor at work is that the lines delivered must actually be funny. And the people who have final say as to the humor value of the delivered lines are the people who hear them.
- Simple is better than complicated
- The more It's important to be funny enough often
enough to keep your team out of trouble.
And it's also important not to hurt anyone
or send the team deeper into toxic conflict.complicated the humor, the more likely it is to fall flat. Especially in tense situations, people at work are most likely focused on work. A humorous comment might take many by surprise. They're unprepared to process the humor. Make it easy for them.
- Puns are high risk
- Even when people are getting along well, with stress levels low, puns can be irritating. Delivering a pun in the hope of defusing a tense situation is unwise. Oddly, there are entire Web sites devoted to providing puns to use at work. Don't go there.
- Unalterable personal attributes aren't funny
- Using someone's personal attribute as a predicate for a humorous comment is extremely risky, especially if the attribute is undesirable. The target of the comment almost certainly will take offense at the commenter and anyone who finds the comment funny. Such comments risk being divisive.
- Ridiculing a serious situation isn't funny
- In serious situations, some people realize they might be held accountable for the problem. Others expect that although they themselves might not be accountable, they might pay a high price personally — harm to their careers or a requirement to work long hours to deal with the problem. Neither set of folks is likely to see much humor in the situation. Indeed, they might interpret humorous comments as comments that devalue the pain they are about to endure.
- Sarcasm is frequently misunderstood
- To be effective, a sarcastic comment must be delivered drily — as if it were a straight comment. And therein lies the risk. Some might interpret the comment literally, which is usually the opposite of the intended meaning. This risk is elevated when the audience is comprised of people hailing from multiple cultures.
- Humor that elevates your own status can seem self-serving
- If the supposedly humorous comment is an example of indirect backdoor bragging, it's more likely to exacerbate tensions than it is to relieve them. And backdoor bragging is just one way to make trouble by elevating one's own status. Another: delivering humor that's humorous only if one has specialized knowledge or access to restricted information.
The human mind is endlessly creative. I'm certain that there are dozens more ways to make trouble with humor. If you notice one not mentioned here, add it to your list of tactics to avoid — and please send the example to me. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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