In On The Joke: Collaboration Through Humor

In this excerpt from the new book Little Bets, author Peter Sims looks at the role of humor in the workplace--and how Pixar thrives on an atmosphere of jovial discussion.

Little BetsThe research literature is rich with findings about how another aspect of playfulness opens up our inventive juices. If you walk through the corridors at Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, California, for thirty minutes, you will almost certainly hear laughter. "Brahhaaaa!" the laughs chorused as four people walked through the company's large central atrium. It turned out to be Bob Petersen, a senior member of Pixar's story team, with three colleagues. Although the specific dialogue was impossible to decipher, Petersen was reeling off one line after another, and his (younger) colleagues literally had beet-red cheeks. One was on the verge of tears. They were in hysterics, something that few workplaces would accept, an interesting contrast with dominant buttoned-up professional norms, parodied exquisitely in the movie Office Space or television show The Office. Straitlaced. Uncontroversial. Professional. Certainly not playful. Humor is so prominent at Pixar that it was worthy of deeper investigation.

A host of studies indicates that humor creates positive group effects. Many focus on how humor can increase cohesiveness and act as a lubricant to facilitate more efficient communications, like Bob Petersen's story team. Researchers have developed a general view that effective humor can increase the quantity and quality of group communications. One reason for that is that humor has also been demonstrated to increase trust. In a widely cited study, Professor William Hampes examined the relationship between humor and trust among eighty-nine college undergraduates ranging in age from sixteen to fifty-four and found a significant correlation. The people who scored high on a test that measured sense of humor for social purposes, coping humor, and appreciated humor and humorous people were considered more trustworthy.

In order to produce positive mental effects, however, researchers Eric Romero and Anthony Pescosolido found that humor first must be considered funny to the people involved, not seen as demeaning, derogatory, or put-downs. That finding is consistent with the underlying improvisation rationale for accepting every offer and making your partner look good. Successful group humor, Romero and Pescosolido argued, based on a broad assessment of humor research, should affirm group identities in terms of: who we are, what we are doing, and how we do things.

Group leaders set the tone. Much like John Lasseter's or Bob Petersen's approach at Pixar, successful humor breaks down the power structures that tend to inhibit tighter social bonds and interactions. This is precisely the type of environment Pixar seeks to create. They have established that, at Pixar, hierarchy and positional status are of less relevance than at most companies. The dominant hierarchical work environment supports the fallacy that the most experienced or senior person in the group will have the answers. People around Google and other corners of Silicon Valley often refer to this as the HiPPO phenomenon. That is, the highest paid person's opinion (HiPPO) usually dominates how people make decisions inside most organizations. People look to the HiPPO to make decisions. People equate status and money with intelligence and insight, when often there's little correlation.

Catmull, Lasseter, and Docter will freely admit that, as the most experienced people at Pixar, they don't have all the answers. Everyone at Pixar knows this. As Silicon Valley blogger Chris Yeh says, "Pixar should be commended for being the anti-HiPPOs." While Lasseter can put on his marketing and executive hat with other corporate executives (say at Disney), when it comes to the idea-generation phase, he is like a big kid in many ways, and he constantly uses playful humor to set the tone.

This is an important point. A playful, lighthearted, and humorous environment is especially helpful when ideas are incubating and newly hatched, the phase when they are most vulnerable to being snuffed out or even expressed because of being judged or self-censored. The imagined possibilities become the basis for little bets, just as comedians improvise to develop new material. Plussing then forms the basis by which to build ideas toward perfection. However, as John Lasseter expresses his perfectionism, "We don't actually finish our films, we release them."

From Little Bets by Peter Sims. Copyright © 2011 by Peter Sims. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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