Business is a Laughing Matter

There’s a restaurant in my neighborhood with this sign: “Good food takes time to prepare. Yours will be ready in a minute.”  The restaurant is always packed.

That sign-  a form of self-deprecating humor—is a small but powerful example of what consumers and employees want: humor. Look around and you will see that business is slowly getting the idea that people want to have fun.  Even traditional warning signs have become humorous. One small retail shop states “handcuffs will be cheerfully given with every stolen item." At the Barking Frog Restaurant in Woodinville, WA, parking signs proclaim, "Frog Lover Parking Only - Violators will be Toad"

Note the last word on the sign.

Emotional Intelligence author and expert, Daniel Goleman,(EQ author/expert), states “Research on humor at work reveals that a well-timed joke or playful laughter can stimulate creativity, open lines of communication, enhance a sense of connection and trust, and, of course make work more fun”. Other research indicates that people are willing to change vendors to do business with people who know how to develop good relationships. Good relationships are bolstered by a sense of humor.

Southwest Airlines has garnered loyal customers and employees but making humor a hallmark of everything they do. On one flight, the attendant announced, “there might be 50 ways to leave your lover but there are only six exits off this plane so listen up!” On another flight, the pilot got on board with a book title obvious in his briefcase: “How to Fly a Plane”.

Imagine a business class in which you have guest lecturers from firms such as Apple, Spanx, and IDEO all talking about how they use laughter in leadership. That’s what you'll find from Stanford Graduate School of Business professors Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas who teach a class “Humor: Serious Business.”

Humor does not mean telling jokes as much as it is finding the chuckle in everyday life. When employees laugh together and not at each other, there is a steady flow of endorphins which spikes antibodies and raises positive emotions. When I conducted a senior level management retreat, I asked managers to send me a picture of themselves as either a baby or a teenager. When the picture was shown, the team had to guess who that might be. Believe me, laughter followed AND bonds were created. After all, we share the common experience as an infant or a teen. Simple humor. Human humor.

Humor also plays a critical role in creating resilient people and a resilient workforce. Research on humor in the past 20 years has led many psychologists to believe that the ability to laugh at oneself makes one more resilient. Such resiliency is a success marker.

I had the opportunity to laugh at myself this past month when—for the first time in 30 years—my alarm did not go off and I literally jumped out of bed, dressed in 12 minutes, and ran down to a meeting room with but 30 minutes to spare. When I got on stage, I decided to address that fact using humor. I confessed to the time frame, why I was out of breath and then asked them to just smile at me with sympathy if my makeup was on lopsided. Also, if the cowlick in the back of my head had parted, just “ lick your hand and put it back in place like my Mom used to do.” We all laughed. Bonded.

Victor Borge claimed that ‘laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Whether with an employee, a customer, or a peer, remember—business is a laughing matter!

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