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Laughing IT Up
It seems stress is now the leading cause of just about everything. And let's face it, in these ‘do-more-with-less' times, IT shops are chock-a-block with pressure. A little humour in the work environment might go a long way in preventing staff burn-out.

Sue Bushell 05 August, 2002 10:37:01
 It seems stress is now the leading cause of just about everything. And let's face it, in these 'do-more-with-less' times, IT shops are chock-a-block with pressure. A little humour in the work environment might go a long way in preventing staff burn-out.

The CIO of a high-tech US firm sponsors an annual "come-as-your-favourite-software" costume event. The winner receives a coveted "top banana" award, complete with large stuffed banana.

In Japan, Toyota holds an annual competition for employees where they vie to demonstrate the most preposterous and impractical vehicle designs. When he was CEO of Intel, the late Robert Noyce garbed himself in outrageous costumes for his annual address to employees.

The chief executive of a medical technology company uses cartoons in internal employee communications, including e-mail, to illustrate key points. Some of these are created in-house, others are licensed. He also uses cartoons as a springboard for discussion at management and employee town hall meetings. Critical players are quickly engaged. Employees often keep the cartoons by their desks as behavioural reminders.

These leaders know something that more organisations should recognise: we all should be laughing more - seriously!

US companies that send their staff on humour training courses - where managers are taught how to introduce an element of light-heartedness into the workforce - recognise that any workplace which consciously incorporates humour is employing a valuable managerial tool. Laughter relaxes people in ways that help make them more productive, reduces stress and fear and can even - because it impacts positively on circulation - keep them more alert. Humour in the workplace facilitates communication, builds relationships, reduces stress, provides perspective, promotes attending and energises.

"In today's dot bomb climate, nobody wants to have employees laughing," says Murli Nagasundaram, associate professor of information systems, Boise State University, who teaches classes on introducing humour to the workplace. "But now is when laughter is needed most of all. Take the case of Patch Adams, the doctor who turned around a hospital with humour."

The IT industry may not necessarily be that sick, but a recent study conducted at Berkeley's School of Public Health even found people who take a humour break in the afternoon are much more productive than those who take a coffee break.

"The experience of humour increases energy and improves problem solving capabilities," says psychologist Steven Sultanoff, past president of the US Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humour. "We like people who make us laugh. Humour tends to improve and solidify relationships between co-workers. In working environments where humour is supported there develops a culture that utilises the humour to reduce stress and provide perspective."

A good sense of humour can be a powerful leadership trait. Frank Liebeskind, group general manager, business solutions for Pinpoint, who claims to be "almost famous" for using humour to ease tensions in difficult and confronting situations, learnt to joke himself out of trouble as a child and has been using it to serve his own ends ever since.

"While I was born in Australia, I was from new immigrant parents with a strange last name, and I had to learn to talk myself out of fights because I was never going to be as big as some of the guys that were going to fight me," he says. "I found as much as anything else that I was able to keep out of trouble by talking my way out of it and using humour. And I've found that in business life you can use humour to break tense situations, to settle disputes, to introduce some humour into a situation that breaks the focus. You can do it constructively and you can also do it to throw your opposition off guard."

Employees clearly value humour in their workplace. When Hayes Personnel Services ran a "humour at work" survey earlier this year almost 92 per cent of respondents agreed humour increases productivity in the workplace, describing the effect of humour on their daily working life variously as: "it inspires me", "it makes me more productive", "life would be dull without the jovial office camaraderie", "if I enjoy what I'm doing in a place where I feel relaxed, my work will reflect this". There was also recognition of the worth of humour to career advancement, with 86 per cent of those asked believing people who actively partake in humour have a better chance of promotion than those reluctant to express themselves.

Keeping It in Bounds

While studies consistently show effective leaders know how to use humour to diffuse tension, create bonds between team members and enhance productivity, it is important the jokes are not made at the expense of others.

One study conducted out of Salisbury University's Perdue School of Business contains a warning for those who do not know how to rein in their wit. It found humour is a useful managerial tool, but only if it is positive. And while males were currently consciously using humour more, females were found to benefit more from using positive humour in the workplace. "Managers (and especially female managers) may find subordinates quite receptive to humour and may be able to enhance their overall effectiveness by enriching their communication style with subordinates," the study suggests. On the other hand, jokes made at the expense of others can positively harm a leader's career prospects, and racist and sexist comments are a real no-no.

Leadership psychologist Dr Susan Battley says that while the positive benefits of humour are significant in terms of creativity, optimising information flow, team building, stress/burnout reduction and employee retention, executives should incorporate humour in ways that support, and are consistent with, their own personality and management style. And they should never forget that humour is subjective and context-specific. "If in doubt, leave it out," Battley advises.

Sarcasm, which is essentially hostility, or criticism disguised as humour, should be avoided and executives should appreciate that laughing at such remarks does not render them benign. Almost all executives should also avoid beginning a keynote or presentation with a joke, Battley says. "First, most of the jokes are not funny. More importantly, they are squandering a precious opportunity to engage the audience immediately and effectively."

And she says humour that involves "shaming" activities is definitely out. Many so-called team-building games, particularly outdoors programs, inadvertently embarrass participants. Even in the spirit of play, not everyone wants to don a bathing suit, climb ropes or appear "silly", Battley says. Managers should consider employees' sensitivities before jumping on board this "fun" bandwagon.

"As a manager, a good sense of humour allows you to stay human with the people who work for you and show them a lighter side of your personality," says Lisa Hamilton, group public relations manager with the US-based The Creative Group. "Being able to laugh with your staff can ease tension and take the sting out of momentary setbacks, which can make everyone more comfortable. Ultimately, that's what a good sense of humour is all about - making people feel comfortable and staying positive.

"Although a sense of humour can be helpful to your career, like any asset, it should be used wisely. It's important to understand your humour style and to incorporate it at appropriate moments. Humour is not something to be forced; if it doesn't come naturally, it's not a good idea to try to push it."

Employing Humour

Psychologists and "psycho humorists" suggest a variety of ways employers can introduce humour to the workplace.

For instance the Stress Doc - Mark Gorkin, AOL's "online psychohumorist" - suggests bosses without the time, nature or inclination to deliver an ongoing one-person light-and-enlightenment show develop a band of in-house motivational experts assembled by temperament, talent and training. Such a collective could help others appreciate the serious in the humorous; or they might cleverly yet compassionately challenge staff to see the glass as half full instead of half empty even in trying times.

"Armed with some practical philosophy, a mature yet slightly mischievous personality and enlightened strategies, skills and techniques, a cadre of purposeful and playful interventionists just might positively impact individual and group morale and productivity," he says. "The keys to a successful and mirthful Â'Mission Improbable' involve strengthening mutual understanding, shared enjoyment and collaborative conflict resolution among diverse and often competing people - rather critical objectives in today's always on, Â'do more with less' increasingly territorial 'survivor' climate."

Boise State's Nagasundaram says humour has to be encouraged from the top, but only by someone setting the example, never by fiat. "It would be great to have a boss with a sense of humour. If she/he doesn't she/he can bring in singing telegrams, jesters, take the department out to a funny movie, and so on. Nissan's design department in California does such things." Dour and humourless bosses who fear too much humour might impede productivity should be subverted, he says. Make easing their suspicions a game, to enhance the pleasure.

US leadership consultant Bill Blades says he encourages clients to have "the most fun place in town to work". Ideas for clients including getting them to set up incentives for salespeople that call for them to include creativity/zany ways to win new clients. That way, he says, the organisation is paying them to think rather than just make the same boring sales calls.

"We want to have them utilise their right brain more than ever before. It takes some nurturing, but in time they become much more creative and sales explode," he says.