As winner of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” John Heffron isn’t exactly a typical business tycoon. But in recent years, with sales of his That Guy! bachelorette card game skyrocketing, he and his business partner have started hiring more employees and dealing with a growing number of organizational headaches. And if there’s one thing Heffron’s learned at the helm of their Los Angeles-based Eleven Eleven Productions, it’s that humor is a surefire way to keep employees on track.
The way he sees it, sterile all-work-and-no-play corporate environments simply drive people to other diversions — be it daydreaming, surfing the Web, or playing Solitaire — to help pass the time. By bringing laughter into the office, a business owner can at least have some control over when and how the entertainment happens. “People are going to seek out ways to make their workday seem shorter anyway,” says Heffron, who also starred in the VH1 sitcom “Smash.” “You might as well keep it in house.”
But even in relatively laid-back offices, the thought of loosening up a notch at any time other than April Fools’ Day can seem downright frightening to many bosses. That, says Ron Culberson, a speaker and author who helps organizations incorporate humor, is because of an old-school paradigm that’s still affecting today’s corporate mentality: “The impression is that if you’re having fun at work, you’re not working hard enough,” he says.
As the study of humor becomes more of a serious discipline, however, researchers are gradually understanding that just the opposite might be true. Not only can humor reduce stress and help produce happier, healthier employees, but it can also enhance people’s ability to retain and recall information and connect and cooperate with one another, says Culberson, who’s FUNsulting, etc. is based in Washington, D.C. He’s been studying and teaching about the benefits of humor for more than two decades, and is trained as a mental-health therapist.
Joking on the job has also been known to stimulate creative thinking, prevent burnout, generate loyalty, and increase productivity. “The more fun you have, the more you can get done,” says Bruce Baum, professor of exceptional education at Buffalo State University and a former board member of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. Outside the classroom, he also runs a humor and magic consulting company called HumorCreativity.com.
Tim Knox, a former cartoonist and standup comic who has founded four Alabama-based companies over the past two decades, says his ability to bring levity to otherwise stuffy business situations has earned him a reputation for being a fun guy to work for and with — which has, in turn, helped both to retain key employees and win new contracts. “I really don’t think I would have gone so far in business without humor,” he says. “It’s served me very well.”
How exactly does Knox do it? He has employees bring cap guns to meetings, encourages them to hang funny signs and decorations at their workspaces, keeps a stash of MAD magazines in his stack of serious business publications, and always keeps plenty of joke books around the office. At this stage in his career, Knox says, he’s still expected to be the proverbial class clown at business mixers and other functions. The key, he says, is not telling a lot of jokes, but simply being personable and learning how to put people at ease.
Bigger businesses are also finding benefits in encouraging employees to clown around. After Waterbury, Vt.-based Ben and Jerry’s hit a big growth spurt back in the mid ’80s, for example, the ice cream company’s top brass decided to form the Joy Gang — a self-selected group of staff members who regularly plan a variety of funny skits, themed meals, holiday celebrations, and other morale-building activities. “It makes fun an official part of the corporate culture,” says Lisa Sholk, an integrated marketing specialist who is currently a member of the Gang. “It gives us something to look forward to.”
At Southwest Airlines, humor is such an integral part of the corporate culture that the company prides itself on hiring for personality, and then training for skill, says spokeswoman Brandy King. That approach has earned the Dallas-based airline a reputation for being a great place to work, with crew members having free reign to make up their own in-flight ditties and hold joke-telling contests at the gate when flights are delayed.
“The biggest thing is to lighten up,” Knox says. “It is business and it is serious, but you can still have fun.” That, of course, is easier said than done — especially in an office full of extra-starchy collars. But with a little thought and effort, you can find something to suit your style, no matter how humor impaired you may be.
Baum suggests getting started by saving funny jokes, quotes, news clippings, and photos, and reviewing them often for inspiration. You might also add them to the bottom of your office memos, include them in presentations, or post them on a specially-designated bulletin board. At meetings you could spice things up by hanging a few unexpected decorations, singing — rather than monotoning — some of your comments, or simply asking others to share something funny that happened in the office recently.
You do, of course, need to make sure the jesting doesn’t become too disruptive or degenerate into something offensive. Since the tone for the company — be it stodgy or silly — usually trickles down from the top, as long as top managers keep themselves in check, the rank-and-file will very likely follow suit. The best way to find the right balance between work and wit is to make gradual, inch-by-inch changes that will become a natural part of your corporate culture over time, Culberson says.
After Culberson held a humor training session for lawyers at a federal agency in Washington, D.C., the group went up on the roof of their building and made snowmen together. While simple, the activity represented an unexpected burst of playfulness that created a sense of unity they hadn’t felt before. “It’s not a big deal, it’s not going to make a big change in the bottom line, but I believe it does change the relationships and attitudes in a way that is conducive to better business,” he says.
Even if all your attempts to tickle your employee’s funny bone fail, don’t despair. If need be, you can always call in a professional like Heffron — provided he’s not too busy trying to keep his own employees entertained.