The Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM) has been great in helping prepare HR for the incoming wave of resignations. However, in their recent survey, painting “better compensation and corporate benefits” as the main reason people are considering changing jobs with 36%, and culture being only 8% is misleading.
WAKE-UP CALL: MOST PEOPLE ARE LEAVING BECAUSE YOU HAVEN’T INSPIRED THEM TO STAY — THAT’S CULTURE.
Better work/life balance: great cultures see “balance” as a verb.
Lack of recognition: great cultures go out of their way to recognize their people’s achievements, from the massive accomplishments to the little wins, no matter the size, these achievements still move the needle.
Company values don’t align: great cultures are clear about their values before an employee walks through the door, and decisions are made with those values in mind. If there isn’t an alignment, chances are, the values are just platitudes posted on an “about us” page.
Lack of strong relationships: great cultures are aware that relationships keep people engaged and energized. If leaders aren’t connecting on a human level, they’re missing out on a cultural boost that will help attract and retain top talent.
Don’t know: When people want to leave their work, but “don’t know” why, it either has to do with not liking their bosses, but they don’t want to say it, or they’re so burnt out, it includes a little bit of all of the above.
If 59% of employees are considering changing jobs because of culture, and to be honest, pay and benefits are a reflection of culture too, culture is the part of the pie that SHOULD be colored in orange.
Paying people may get them in the door, but engaging them, keeping them, and energizing them enough to refer you to other great potential employees — that’s all culture — and building culture takes a mindset shift that HAS to start from the corner office.
Learn how to make your culture one where people WANT to work. Visit my website and book a call: watercoolercomedy.org
In dozens of consulting conversations and audience surveys, one of the biggest concerns of managers, recruiters, and business owners I keep hearing is the notion that “nobody wants to go back to work.” It’s a fair notion: you’ve got positions open, no one’s applying, and you see unemployment checks flying off the shelf.
I get it.
But the reality is that human beings are wired with an innate desire to work, we’re nature’s best cooperators after all. Unfortunately, the way the system is set up — industrialized, bureaucratic, and extrinsically-focused — actually demotivates us. So people want to work, but we’re learning that people don’t want to work the same way we’ve been working.
Contrary to the image that’s in hiring managers’ heads (my own dad included), not everyone wants to sit around drinking and playing Call Of Duty all day. Even if they were, you don’t want that person working for you anyway.
The point: this time-for-money transactional system that we have in place is broken, so instead of offering a trade of employees’ time for money, create a shift of trading time for meaning. Instead of questioning the people who don’t want to come work for you, question the system that ignores what makes us human: meaningful, engaging, creative, collaborative work that intrinsically motivates us to seek out opportunities for growth.
Appeal to people’s humanity, not their wallets — anyone can offer an extra buck or two, a $500 hiring bonus, or benefits — but not anyone can give people a reason to WANT to come to work and work their asses off for you. If your biggest competitor is the government giving people an extra $300 a week, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the why behind people walking through your door to put their time and energy into building your business.
We’ve all seen the passive-aggressive signs in restaurant windows apologizing to customers because “everyone’s being lazy” and “no one wants to work.” I’m not sure what those business owners are trying to accomplish other than scaring away potential hires.
Do you really think people are going to see that sign, march in the door with the work ethic you’re looking for, and say “When do I start?” Try going up to someone at the bar and saying, “No one wants to date me, no matter how much I pay them.”
You’re going home alone.
I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know that if you’re waiting on the unemployed and uninterested to come to work for you because you’re willing to pay them, and no one’s showing up…
Maybe it’s you.
And I’m not claiming I know your struggles and stresses — I’ve been working alone in my office for 15 months. But I am saying, if you’re not getting the results and the people you’re looking for, maybe it’s time you take a look in the mirror. In many of these consulting conversations I have with managers complaining about the lack of a talent pool, I learn their companies don’t have recognition programs, don’t allow room for autonomy, and make decisions without first consulting with the people whom the decisions will affect most. Meaning: employees are working extra hours, extra hard without being given a voice, while being micromanaged with little more than a pat on the back. Then I find out there’s a long track record of politics at play and people don’t always get along, and that employees don’t often go above and beyond doing what’s necessary. But sure, it’s the government’s fault that people aren’t clamoring to work for you.
Maybe it’s time for you to say, “It’s not you, it’s me.” I mean, at the very least, it’ll give you a sense of accountability. I’m not blaming you, I’m offering you more control of the situation by shifting your focus to what you do control: your thoughts, words, and actions.
As a comic and a speaker, if I tell a story onstage about an ex or somebody who did something to wrong me, or I want to complain about someone else, the punchlines are always about my own perception of those other people. That way, I don’t come across as a jerk and, because I’m changing my own perceptions, I’m learning and growing so I don’t make the same mistakes again.
Do the employees you have love their jobs so much that they’re willing to recommend to their closest friends and family members to come apply?
2. Do the employees you have go above and beyond to help one another?
3. Do you celebrate their successes as a manager, get your hands dirty, and appreciate them for their hard work, even if they do something wrong, so that they come to you with gratitude, not gripes?
If your answers to any of these questions comes with a pause where you have to think about it first… it’s time to switch things up. Feel free to send out an anonymous survey asking your team what it would take for them to recommend working for you to their friends and family.
If there’s ever an information gap you can’t seem to fill, their perspectives are more valuable than yours.
And please, for all that’s sacred, don’t take it personally.
If your people are leaving work, proud to be a part of your team. Wearing your name on their sleeve, as long as their financial needs are met, they’ll work for less to work for a cause they believe in. If they aren’t, maybe it’s time to start asking them what you can do different for them to start.
Humans have this awful habit of only seeing what proves our beliefs to be true and ignoring or disputing what goes against our beliefs, and often we end up making those beliefs come to fruition, so if you believe that nobody wants to work…
why are you surprised when nobody wants to work for you?
The good news is if this article made you angry — if you felt yourself getting worked up to dispute my points about the fact that government checks are demotivating people — you’re exactly who this article is for.
You have the power to change these beliefs and start getting the people you want who are actually excited to come work for you.
So what’s one thing you can do to make work less transactional and inspire your people to start trading their time for meaning?
Who would’ve guessed that almost exactly one year ago, we’d be leaving the office to a world where work would be forever changed? Now, one year later, remote working has become widely accepted, commute times are down, people can spend more time with their families, and companies are experimenting with new ways to make remote work feel more engaging and rewarding.
We’ve reached a crossroads: COVID cases are starting to fall, the vaccine is more widely available, and organizations are implementing plans to bring their teams back to working in-person.
Except not everybody is chomping at the bit to get back to the office. As a leader, the last thing you want is for people on your team to come back to work because they feel obligated, even though they’re stressed, preferred working from home, and even worried because they live with a high-risk family member, or they’re high-risk themselves.
When employees are working from a place of obligation, stress, or fear they aren’t doing their best work, and in a world where we need our people to be creative, if they’re stressed or scared, the creative parts of their brains shut down.
It’s up to you to ease the transition back into in-person work and give your people reasons to look forward to getting back to the office. Here are six ways to do this:
1. Offer flexibility
In order to account for the fact that some of your employees will be feeling trepidation, offer the option to work from home 2–3 days per week so that the office isn’t filled to capacity every day. Be clear that as long as they maintain productivity, they can create their own schedules. Not only will this create a sense of safety and communicate that you care, it gives your team the feeling of ownership, which could have a positive impact on their productivity.
2. EXTRA Casual Friday
Working from home has led to the realization that, in many cases, working from the office can be uncomfortable. If I can be productive working from home in flannel pants, fuzzy socks, and a hoodie, why can’t I work from the office in that way? Allow your team the freedom to put the emphasis on casual in Casual Fridays (as long as it’s appropriate). For example, the Zoomsie
3. Bring home to work
Studies have shown that employees who bring their dogs to work experienced lower stress levels, higher levels of job satisfaction, and they have a more positive perception of their employer. Put some ground rules in place like sign-up sheets and conduct requirements, and watch as happiness improves with each passing pet. Soon, your team will go from saying “Good boy!” to “Good boss!”
4. Allow for mental health breaks
In case you were curious, stress levels did not decrease in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, which gives you, as a leader, a golden opportunity to lower your team’s stress. Offer them the freedom to take an extra hour a day to get some fresh air, meditate, exercise, watch funny videos, play a game, etc. As I stated earlier, stress shuts down our creativity and limits problem-solving, so if you’re worried about lost productivity, one of the best ways to get it back is to give your employees the freedom to take an extra hour so that they’re more productive when they are working.
5. Keep your door open
To make your team feel safer in the workplace, offer a listening ear whenever anyone needs it. Whether they want to offer ideas for work, address a concern, or share a personal story about their struggles through COVID, simply offering time to chat can put your team at ease. One of the most frequent complaints I get from audiences has been that leaders don’t do enough to connect on a personal level to make sure people are doing okay. Now’s your chance. We’re all going through this together, and coming together again in-person without making an effort to connect on a deeply human level is a gigantic missed opportunity.
6. Give them something to look forward to
It’s been a rough year for your employees, as they’ve all had to make sacrifices to stay productive while teaching their kids and adapting to massive societal changes. As you head back into the office, you now have a golden opportunity to show your appreciation. Help your team reframe the narrative from “I have to go back to work” to “I can’t wait to go back to work” with an exciting event where everyone is free to participate. Whether it’s a party, games, entertainment (like a customized corporate comedy experience) or a fun class, the goal is for them to count down the days until you’re creating a shared experience together, like we used to count down to our birthdays or Christmas. (For an extra helping of fun, you can even make a construction paper chain to help with the countdown.)
When it comes to taking risks, the last hour of an all-day management retreat for your team doesn’t seem like it’d be the time or place – they’re tired, their work for the day is done, they feel the sweet release of freedom at their fingertips – when suddenly, it’s ripped away for an extra hour of training. And not just any training, stand-up comedy training.
“If looks could kill, I would’ve died right there on the spot,” recalls Steve Cody, founder and CEO of NYC-based Peppercomm.
Peppercomm is a marketing communications company that prides itself on challenging conventional wisdom when it comes to marketing, and what challenges conventional wisdom more than combining stand-up comedy and managers? Okay, maybe discipline via trial-by-combat, but comedy in the workplace is up there.
Why take such a risk? According to Cody, after performing stand-up for a few years, he began to notice that the skills he learned onstage were actually benefitting him around the office.
“My senses were sharpened by having to read the room, deal with silence, catcalls, and nerves before making a major presentation, so I said, ‘I think this is applicable to the workplace.’”
Comedy, or at the very least, laughter in the workplace, has been proven to generate results for those organizations who place high value in humor. According to a Huet & Associates study, organizations who used humor to engage employees reported shareholder returns 19% higher than their competitors. A study by market research company Ipsos found a correlation between employee retention and the sense of humor of the managers at those organizations – imagine all that time and money you’d save on recruiting and onboarding with lower turnover rates. And a study published in The Journal Of Managerial Psychology discovered a direct correlation between a supervisor’s use of humor and employee performance, engagement, collaboration skills, and satisfaction. Leaders who use humor were also perceived as better performers and more likable.
The effects of humor at work are clear, so even though Cody’s managers were initially resistant to the idea of comedy training, they didn’t take long to come around.
“You could see everybody pulling for one another,” remembers Cody, “so it became part and parcel of our training program.” Now, Peppercomm uses his outside-of-the-box, culture-building, shared experience a few times a year to train new hires or employees moving up in the organization, and they even offer the training to clients. Because of this unique cultural cornerstone, Peppercomm has a competitive edge over more serious marketing firms when it comes to attracting potential clients and hires. More than once, Cody has heard, “You made us laugh,” when closing a deal with a new client, so needless to say, his risk to introduce comedy to his team had more than paid off. Not only has it helped attract new clients, but it has also landed Peppercomm on many “Best Places To Work” lists, including Forbes, Crain’s, and Inc., which makes the firm a destination for the PR world’s creative up-and-comers.
The gamble could’ve easily backfired on Cody, but he doesn’t look at taking risks from such a doomsday, “What if it all goes wrong?” perspective. Another powerful lesson the average non-comedian can learn from stand-up is that it’s okay to fall on your face when you try something new, and this willingness to be vulnerable and honest in pursuit of a goal can serve as a catalyst for growth.
As the old adage goes: it’s about the Journey, not Steve Perry.
Okay, maybe that joke didn’t work, but I had to at least take the risk and include it. If you didn’t laugh, I’m okay with that because instead of wasting energy and speculating on “What would’ve happened if I included the joke?” I now have the answer and can learn from it… and never say that again.
OR find a new way to say it better.
OR include it as part of a longer joke.
In today’s workplace, vulnerability and the willingness to think outside-of-the-box are vital leadership skills for adapting to changing times, and when things don’t go according to plan, your team will look to you for guidance.
“I allow all of my employees to see me fail, and fail miserably,” remarks Cody.
“You’ve got to be a little more human and authentic.” But what about the idea that leaders have to be strong and have all of the answers?
In short, this perspective of leadership is outdated. With the development of virtual and AI technology disrupting the status quo of work and new challenges popping up seemingly on the hour, agility is a much more valuable leadership skill than rigidity in the modern workplace, and the first step to being agile is to come to terms with the fact that you may be wrong sometimes… and that’s okay!
Not only is it okay, it’s more than okay in today’s world. With technology speeding up the way we work, we have to hang onto our humanity in the workplace, and the best way to do that is by being open to your own imperfections and being willing to laugh about them.
“People want the truth and want to be treated as peers, which is difficult if you’re in the CEO spot. But the beauty of comedy is that it level-sets. It personifies and humanizes the CEO in a way that nothing else can.”
By taking a risk and trying something new, so much can go wrong, but if you’re open to laughing about it, not only will you be quicker to adjust, your people are more likely to have your back. According to Cody, employees expect vulnerability, humanity, and open-mindedness in their leaders.
As a comedian, if you’re willing to put yourself on the level of your audience and connect with them as an authentic human being – rather than performing by memory, or lecturing them on the way you see the world – you build trust. Once an audience trusts you, when one of your ideas doesn’t connect, they stay on board and are rooting for you to adjust and succeed with your next joke. Some comedians will badger an audience for not laughing, others will plug on in a rote, rehearsed way, but the ones who can take that bombed joke and build audience trust on a non-laugh by turning the attention to their own failure – those are the greats.
Just like performing stand-up, being a leader is rooted in being a human being first, and being a human means making mistakes.
Leaders: ask yourself, with whom would you rather work side-by-side? The person who works the same way every day, who has tall of the answers and never admits when they’re wrong? Or the person who is willing to try new things, who has questions and admits that they don’t have all of the answers, and is sometimes willing to laugh at themselves?
Be the leader you’d rather work with – that’s who your employees need you to be.
According to Cody, “The companies and leaders that’ll come out of this [pandemic] with the most success are the ones who show that they care. You need to let [your employees] know that it’s okay to not be okay.”
With this leadership mindset, you have permission to present your wild, outside-of-the-box idea to your team, and even if it fails miserably, remember, that’s what makes all of us human.
Now, more than ever, it is vital to laugh when it comes to work. Y’know… that thing we spend a majority of our lives doing and stressing about. With the seismic shift in what it means to work brought about by the pandemic (among other changes), refusing to allow humor to become a vital part of your workplace’s culture will not only impact happiness, it will hamper creativity, productivity, and the bottom line. Because using humor is not typically a behavior associated with leadership – or even the workplace – here are twelve guidelines for making your workplace more effective with humor.
*Note: Each workplace operates differently, containing its own unique cast of characters, policies, and culture, so by seeing these steps as guidelines for dealing with adversity and uncertainty, and not hard rules, you can adapt them to your own circumstances.
Step 1: Lean Into It
Be open to the fact that anything can be funny. No matter what situation you’re in, what difficult person you’re dealing with, or how hopeless you feel, someone out there has had it worse and been able to laugh. If 100 people heard your story, there would be 100 different perspectives, and by simply saying, “This is funny,” it creates a shift in yours.
Step 2: Start From Where You Are
Look around you and take note of everything that’s happening. What do you see? What’s going on? What are your thoughts? How do your thoughts make you feel? What actions are you taking? Are things going as planned? If not, how are they being addressed? What is and isn’t working? What are people saying? What do you have control over? What do you not? What skills, talents, and tools do you have at your disposal? Why so many questions? Because asking yourself questions that force you to provide objective answers can lead you to new solutions.
Step 3: Know From Whence You Came
What victories have you had in the past? How have you grown? How did you respond to defeats? Are there cringeworthy moments? Regrets? Things you wish you had done? Remember, you have no control over the past, but you do have control over your perspective of it and the actions you take based on that.
Step 4: Know Where You Want To Go And Why
Before starting anything, you need a goal and a why. For example, the intent of every comedian should be to leave their audience feeling better than they were when they arrived. As a leader, shouldn’t this be your goal too? In this case, your “audience” includes your employees, coworkers, customers, and clients, and inspiring positive emotions based on your interactions not only makes both of you feel better, it provides an energy boost that will have you doing better too.
Step 5: Be Authentic
Watching someone try to be funny is so painful because they’re trying to get a reaction, rather than sharing something that actually made them laugh. Don’t be that guy. If it isn’t funny to you, it’s going to be even less funny to others. Be true to yourself – if you’re not typically the person who makes wisecracks, people will start giving you funny looks and wondering if you’re okay. You don’t have to use humor to appreciate the humor in a situation.
Step 6: Provide A Safe Space For Creativity And Discovery
If you want your creativity to flourish when it comes to problem-solving, you gotta give it the space to do so. Instead of shooting down your own ideas before you have a chance to explore them by telling yourself “There’s no way this works,” enter the creative space by assuming it will work, use that as your starting point, and work backwards.
Step 7: Use “Yes, And…” As Your Core Collaborative Tool
One of the best ways for overcoming creative blockage is by accepting ideas as true and amazing and then adding to them – whether they’re your own ideas or someone else’s. Even if it’s a bad idea, responding with a resounding acceptance and then adding to it has myriad benefits, the chief of which is emotional connection. There’s plenty of time to get analytical, but that has no place in the idea stage of a project.
Step 8: Know Your Audience
Who are you using humor in front of? Not all humor works for all people, so adapt it to your coworkers, clients, or your audience. What new idea do you have and who are you presenting it to? Always read the room and adapt accordingly. There’s always a way to get a message across more effectively, and being aware of how you’re packaging that message for its intended audience is vital to that message’s success.
Step 9: Use Humor To Uplift
Like point 4 mentioned, your intent serves as a guide. Never demean, ridicule, isolate, punch down on, or be excessively sarcastic toward others in an effort to be funny. You want to ease tension, inspire creativity, and build bonds, and any form of humor that leaves people feeling bad for you or themselves is not welcome. (Additional tip: there are times when you or someone else may unintentionally cross the line. If it’s someone else, appreciate their efforts, and ask them questions where they come up with answers to guide themselves toward more uplifting forms of humor. If it’s you, see the following step.)
Step 10: Laugh At Yourself
No one’s perfect. You’re a human being who makes mistakes, but that’s actually a good thing: mistakes are how you learn and grow. Being steadfast and stubborn in your quest to always be right and have the answers is how you stay stagnant. The quicker you laugh, the quicker you learn, the quicker you course correct, and the more you deliver the subconscious message to others that it’s okay to mess up… as long as growth is the result. There’s a reason my programs are filled with stories about falling on my face and learning from it: the audience sees themselves, and it creates connection and common ground.
Step 11: Create Shared Experiences
Shared laughter creates an instant bond between people, whether strangers, friends and family, or bitter enemies. The more immersive, involved, and inclusive an experience is, the more you connect people. Anyone can reap the benefits of humor, and doing it as a group is a way to speed up the process, see one another as individuals instead of job titles and actions, and create a shared story, whether virtually or in person.
Step 12: Delegate
This is the step for those of you who consider yourselves more analytical than creative – you don’t have to be funny to use humor. By leaning into those who are or, at the very least, to those who are more creative or upbeat, you contribute in the way that suits you best by leaning into the talents of others. Yeah, giving up control to others is scary, but if you consistently follow the above 11 steps, even if it doesn’t go as planned, not only do you have the tools to adapt and respond, but you’ve built a culture where others do too.
We could all use a laugh right now. If you’re able to implant the idea that work – the place where people spend a significant chunk of their time – is a place where they can actually enjoy themselves, laugh, and accomplish tasks in new ways, you’ve set yourself apart from a normal that has dragged down people’s potential too long.
If your team is struggling with uncertainty, stress, overwhelm, virtual fatigue, and pessimism, chances are good that engagement levels are down, meaning fewer ideas, less collaboration, and lower returns. Effectively incorporating humor into your culture solves these problems, and I can help. Schedule a free conversation today, and we’ll team up to come up with a plan to transform your team into one that is more creative, effective, and equipped to deal with adversity and uncertainty.
What if everything — and I mean everything — that could go wrong did go wrong? When rolling out a new policy, adapting to new rules and regulations, or getting used to a new executive, there is bound to be just a little bit of fear. As we limp into 2021 after a 2020 that nobody — except for maybe a tiny bat in China who dreamed of world domination — saw coming, there’s going to be some battle-weary soldiers in the office, so when you announce another change, resistance will inevitably kick in.
Don’t resist the resistance unless you want more resistance. Instead, embrace it.
In 2014, online retailer Zappos decided to shift their management model to a holacracy, a management model where the traditional functions of managers are eliminated and job titles are replaced by roles that individuals acquire. The traditional pyramid of hierarchy is replaced by, according to Business Insider:
A series of “circles” dedicated to specific functions like marketing and customer relations.
It’s centered around self-management and requires employees to have high levels of engagement, meaning, and organizational buy-in to work. Say what you will about the management model, what I’m more interested in is how the employees and executives at Zappos, as well as outside experts, responded to such a seismic shift.
How did the employees respond?
When former CEO Tony Hsieh sent out a memo asking for full employee commitment to the new system, 18% of the company chose to take their severance packages. Yikes.
How did outside experts respond?
In the never-ending quest to prove that new ideas don’t work, publications like HBR, Inc, and Business Insider were quick to draw attention to the mass exodus from Zappos.
How did Zappos executives respond?
They made a video spoofing the idea of a holacracy. You read that right: Hseih starred in an employee-produced video where he falls asleep on the couch, and wakes up in a dream where the company has fallen into the chaos of anarchy, like the press predicted:
This video was a fun, outside-of-the-box way of communicating to the remaining employees that even if the new management style didn’t work, it could always be worse. Though Zappos has gradually transitioned away from holacracy, the switch didn’t involve panic or a coup like the video portrays, and the company has maintained a positive, creative workplace culture that consistently shows up on best-places-to-work lists.
So what was the point of the video?
It served three purposes:
It allowed for employees to work together in a creative setting, side-by-side with the CEO and one another, on a fun project they could look back on, be proud of, and share with family and friends that “My job and my boss are pretty cool.” Be honest: would your boss take part in a video spoofing his own decisions?
It gave employees a shot of perspective. When faced head-on with change, humans have a bad habit of gravitating to worst-case scenario situations. One way to ease this stress is to take that worst-case scenario and manifest it in the form of a fun project like this that delivers the subconscious message, “Relax — that worst-case scenario is not only implausible, it’s kind of silly.” Using humor in this way is a great tool for level-setting perspectives, so instead of stress and fear, people begin asking the question, “What can we do next?”
It delivered a message to outsiders: this is a fun and engaging place to work. Imagine you’re looking for a job and you’re deciding between the “business-as-usual” company and the “we don’t take ourselves seriously” company. Though the former is consistent and you’ll feel safe and secure, the latter is one of the biggest online retailers in the world because it takes risks, has fun, and is willing to take an occasional L. Would you rather work at a company that takes work seriously, takes its customers seriously, and takes itself seriously, or a company that takes its work and customers seriously, but doesn’t take itself seriously.
If you’re a leader, making a short video to poke fun at your own ideas is one way to help your team want to get on board with new ideas, instead of making them feel like they have to get on board. Added bonus: the video that Zappos made cost zero dollars and was put together exclusively by team members. Sure, the editing, sound, and writing isn’t award-worthy, but it’s okay because the people who made it aren’t professionals. Because of the fundamental shift of workplaces we experienced in 2020, we need to find new ways to generate buy-in from our teams, and making a video where you communicate that “Yeah, this could go wrong, but with you by my side, we can make this thing work… and if it doesn’t, then at least it won’t be as bad as what happens in this video,” is just one way of many to do it.
Note: I wrote this in response to the loss of a visionary risk taker and leader whose legacy will live on in all those he inspired through working for him, reading his book, watching his interviews, and so on. If more leaders modeled their behaviors after Tony Hsieh, we’d fundamentally change the meaning of what it means to “work:”
“I think when people say they dread going into work on Monday morning, it’s because they know they are leaving a piece of themselves at home. Why not see what happens when you challenge your employees to bring all of their talents to their job and reward them not for doing it just like everyone else, but for pushing the envelope, being adventurous, creative, and open-minded, and trying new things?” — Tony Hsieh
In my years of preaching the importance of humor in the workplace, I’ve been met with resistance because just as so much can go right, so much can go wrong. The goal of using humor is to uplift, add value, break the tension, release stress, and bring people together, but if it isn’t done right, humor can have the opposite effect. Here are three outcomes of using humor in the workplace that you want to avoid:
If you’re going through the loss of a loved one or you’ve been working hard all day and need respite, humor provides a welcome distraction and a jolt of perspective. If you can feel the tension rising between people, sometimes a well-timed one-liner or acknowledgement of incongruity can release that tension instantly. Humor is a fantastic tool when the goal is added perspective or tension release. If you’re using humor as a distraction or if you’re doing it all. the. time… you may be distracting yourself from the bigger picture. Humor is a means to an end, not the end itself, so if you’re noticing an incongruity — say there’s a blatant disregard for diversity — cracking a joke about it and not doing anything can be just as toxic as being openly bigoted. Note the problem, laugh about the fact that it’s a problem and your current actions aren’t solving it, then do something about it by trying something new.
Incorporating humor as a cornerstone of your culture may not connect with all audiences — and that’s okay. When people would rather work in serious mode, the last thing you want to do is form a roving band of jesters poking fun at those who won’t join in, or shutting off those who aren’t as funny. People are socially awkward, so if someone who was nervous about contributing humor fears being laughed at instead of laughed with, he or she will feel like an outsider. Even if their quip isn’t funny, laugh politely and avoid the desire to talk about that person once they’re out of earshot. Start from a place of appreciation, because even if that other person without a funny bone in their body feels welcome, your inclusivity will lead to them eventually surprising you with a perspective that has everyone rolling.
If humor is at the expense of someone, or it appears as an exclusive club to your less-funny employees, the benefits of it are nullified. Though witty takedowns and scathing comebacks are commonplace in comedy clubs, “comedian owns heckler” videos, and Comedy Central Roasts, chances are good your employees aren’t professional comedians, so replicating this style of humor is often toxic at work.
Humor at work is meant to be a means-to-an-end, inclusive, unifying, and uplifting. If the results are anything other than these three things, it’s time to course correct.
Toxic workplaces: we’ve all worked somewhere that seemed to drain our happiness, but when the place is a nationally televised talk show featuring a personality with a message of “Be kind,” it hits different.
For those who weren’t aware of the workplace toxicity reports on Ellen, here’s a quick refresher:
One current employee and 10 former staffers claimed they endured a culture of racism, fear and intimidation. They blamed senior managers on the show for allowing the behavior.
The allegations in the Buzzfeed report included former employees saying they were fired for taking time off for medical leave or bereavement. — Source: Today.com
36 former employees of the show reported “handsy” behavior, asking for sexual favors, and groping by multiple producers and higher-ups at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” — Source: Insider.com
This coupled with comedian Kevin T. Porter’s viral tweet thread requesting stories about Ellen being mean, it seemed as though the world was piling on Ellen DeGeneres, and rightfully so. It’s one thing to run a toxic workplace environment, it’s quite another to run a toxic workplace environment while asking your audience to be kind, which is why the stories got so much traction and #cancelellen was trending.
Here are six (plus one) lessons I learned while watching Ellen apologize.
Lesson 1: When confronted with reports of a toxic work environment, address it immediately
When Ellen returned today, she was expected to address the elephant in the room, and she did, but the Buzzfeed report was released in July, it’s now two months later. Imagine your workplace’s environment being so negative that employees reported it to your local news organization, then you disappear into your office for two months before addressing it publicly. Whether you’re the culprit of the mistreatment of others or not, it’s your job to address criticisms and complaints as though you’re the perpetrator. You set the tone. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, other people are counting on you to say admit that, and assure them with your words and actions that you’re actively pursuing a solution. I live by the quote, “This wasn’t my fault, but it’s my responsibility now,” and if you’re a leader, you should too. It gives you power, shows you’re willing to shoulder the burden of responsibility, and gives people the courage to come to you if something is stopping them from doing their jobs to their best of their abilities. During her statement, Ellen admitted to fumbling the responsibility that comes with her power — a step in the right direction.
Lesson 2: Be open to vulnerability
“Being known as ‘The Be Kind Lady’ is a tricky position to be in. So let me give you some advice out there: if anybody’s thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with ‘The Be Kind Lady.’” — Ellen DeGeneres
In a position of power, it is easy to take ourselves too seriously in order to maintain an air of confidence and control. If you make a mistake and you’re looking for forgiveness from your team, your customers, or your community, it is incredibly helpful to show your human side. We all make mistakes, and admitting that is a huge step in winning back the trust of others. By admitting that she’s not always kind, that she gets sad, mad, anxious, frustrated, and impatient, and that she’s a work in progress, Ellen delivers the message that at least she has some self-awareness — a fantastic starting point.
Lesson 3: Use humor without minimizing the situation
To open her monologue, Ellen broke the ice with a little bit of humor:
“How was everybody’s summer? Good? Mine was great!”
Then, when accepting responsibility, she did it again:
“This is the Ellen DeGeneres show, I am Ellen DeGeneres. My name is there. My name is there. My name is… on underwear.”
Some may assert that this is minimizing some of these serious allegations, but the humor is well-placed, and is mostly targeted toward herself. Though not all apologies and course corrections need a dose of humor, be sure to use it to point out your own flaws, mistakes, and vulnerabilities, but also be sure to use it as a springboard or stepping stone toward making changes.
Lesson 4: Offer gratitude openly
Though I wish she would’ve spent more time showing gratitude toward her employees, Ellen at least made mention of the people who allow her to do what she does best: make people laugh. As a leader, we need to do this every day and as much as possible, hence the italics for emphasis. We cannot reach our full potential without the contributions of others, and to help them reach their potential, be vocal about pointing out the positive impacts they have on your day, whether in public, or 1-on-1.
Lesson 5: Communicate a vision
When offering regret, admitting to mistakes, and asking for forgiveness, be sure to communicate that you’re committed to your original why. If you are mistreating employees, putting profits over people, and allowing hate in your workplace, you’ve lost your vision. When you ask yourself why your organization exists, the answer is always to serve people, and those people especially include your employees.
Lesson 6: Commit to change
“I still want to be the one hour a day that people can go to escape and laugh. I want to continue to help all the people that we help every day.” — Ellen DeGeneres
From this quote, for example, Ellen and her employees will know if she is actually committed to her vision because if they don’t feel going to work is an escape. If they don’t laugh while they’re at work, then it’s much harder to bring those things to their viewers. If your vision at your organization is to help your community, that should be the first thing on your mind when an employee is falling short of your expectations. If your actions don’t match your words, then your apology means nothing and you’ve learned nothing. We all make mistakes, but the only way to regain trust and show that you’ve grown is to act on your words.
Bonus Lesson: Follow up
I would love to see Ellen deliver a follow-up monologue stating all of the ways the working conditions have improved. Transparency is key here. If you want to mean what you say, push yourself to give updates on all of the changes you’ve made and ask for honest feedback. When people come to you with ideas, even if it seems like they’re attacking or complaining, keep in mind that they’re doing it because they want you to be better, which makes them better too. Be open to asking for help if you need it and you feel you aren’t keeping your word. Ellen’s latest stand-up special is called Relatable, and one of the most relatable things she, and you, can do as a leader is to be a vulnerable and flawed human being who needs reminders to “be kind.”
Masks are now mandatory at your workplace and not everyone’s happy about it.
Regardless of where you stand on wearing a mask, the reality is that in many cases, you’re legally mandated to wear one in public, unless you’re eating or drinking, or face the consequences. It’s a minuscule disruption of the daily status quo and will have the same impact on someone’s ability to do their job as adding a new coat of paint to the office walls. Somehow, however, it has become a national talking point that has led to verbal altercations, assault, and even murder.
And murder has a tendency to lower morale.
As a leader, you have so much on your plate, and now employees are complaining about having to wear a mask while they work, while others are complaining about their coworkers who refuse to wear one.
What do you do? Here are some dos and don’ts for making sure the people in your organization are compliant while maintaining morale:
Do: Remember Human Behavior
Throughout all of history, when confronted with new ideas policies, or technology, people have a bad habit of resisting change.
You purchase new technology that’ll make their jobs easier: “I don’t want to learn this. I’m doing just fine with the technology I have.” You introduce a new policy that’ll boost morale: “That’s not the way we’ve always done it.” You hire new managers: “I’ve been here longer! They have no idea what they’re doing!” It seems like you can never win.
The goal here is to make them comfortable with the uncomfortable, and in this case, the uncomfortable is wearing a thin piece of cloth over their faces.
Don’t: Judge Or Allow Judgment Thinking
Right, wrong, good, bad, stupid, smart – it doesn’t matter how people judge the mask wearing policies. You’ll have people on all sides of the spectrum, which is a beautiful thing, but that’s not what’s important here. Focusing on people’s opinions on mask wearing and the effects of mask wearing are inconsequential to the results you are looking for.
Do: Emphasize Opportunity Thinking
Let’s just get this out of the way: mask-wearing is going to be a part of our culture for the foreseeable future, so the best option here is to just lean into it. Instead of offering our opinions based on what already is, it’s more engaging and productive to focus on how it’s an opportunity to build your brand, have fun, incorporate the mask into your work, or lean into the creativity of your coworkers. When we see something as an opportunity, there is no limit to its potential. When we see something as good, bad, etc., we create a closed-ended situation.
Don’t: Close Your Door To Complaints
Though judgment thinking isn’t as productive as opportunity thinking, it’s human nature to judge and focus on what’s wrong. If you close your door to complaints, this is a subconscious message that your door will be closed to ideas too. Open up a line of communication and guide the complainers and those who can’t stop thinking about how much this sucks away from their position toward action.
Do: Clearly Communicate That You’re On Their Side
Communicate the fact that you want them to be able to work to the best of their ability and be happy while they’re doing it. Set a hard line by saying something like, “There’s nothing I can do about mask-wearing, but I’m willing to help you find ways to make the most of this situation.” Now listen to them without responding, other than asking clarifying questions when necessary. Through the power of asking questions, guide them to the realization that this is an opportunity for them to creatively contribute to something they care about. If they have ideas, don’t shoot them down. Let them work the idea through, and if it isn’t a solid or actionable idea yet, give them the option to work it out and come back to you. The important thing here is to make sure these people feel heard and that you’re not just smiling and nodding so they leave you alone.
Do: Lean Into The Talent Of Your People To Create A Shared Experience
If you must mask, mask in style. See if you can get the okay from higher-ups to allow a mask-designing contest, where your resident artists, comedians, or fashion designers can create a mask that’s fun, fabulous, fits with the culture, or all three. This creates a shared, collaborative experience that reminds everyone, “We’re in this together.”
Many of my posts begin with anecdotes about how I once was reprimanded for “acting out.” Admittedly, it’s a great starting point because through this discipline, I realized many of the absurd, stuffy, and unnatural standards humans are meant to abide by. Society states that we must behave a certain way, or else we’ll be treated differently, and God forbid we let down other people’s expectations of us (insert eye roll emoji). Remember being told to “ACT YOUR AGE” as a kid? What I wouldn’t give up to be told to “ACT LIKE A KID” again. Why? Human beings have an innate desire to explore, try new things, and make discoveries, and there is no better time in our lives to do this than when we’re children. Our curiosity peaks when we’re young because the older we get, the more we are told by adults to “stop acting so childish.” The unintended result of this is that we lose our biological desire to explore for fear of consequence. This creates a pattern of stagnation that stifles our childlike wonder to a place that makes us uncomfortable with new ideas.
Regaining this quality is vital in the workplace today. With so many jobs being outsourced to machines, simply working to color inside the lines and meet quotas is becoming an outdated way to work. Modern companies need their teams to think outside of the box, but our childhood conditioning taps us on the shoulder to tell us not to rock the boat for fear of consequence, and too many people listen.
It’s up to you to make the conscious decision to revisit what makes you human. There’s a reason when you would fall as a kid, you would get back up and get right back to what you were doing – it’s our natural instinct. Now, with fear of failure instilled into our psyches by our parents, teachers, and bosses, we’re far less likely to try that new way of doing things that may be the solution to whatever challenges we’re facing. One strategy I use as a comedian to add depth to a joke is to ask myself:
“What would a child think about this?”
“What would a child do in this situation?”
I’m not advocating you act with reckless abandon and use the airplane seat in front of you as a punching bag, but I am advocating you:
Try one new way of doing a rote task at work this week
If it doesn’t work, take stock of what worked and what didn’t
Adapt your gameplan
Try the updated way of doing things
In hindsight, one of the worst things you can do is “act your age.” Because deep down, no matter how old you are, you are a child that needs to explore your world and find new ways to do things that are exciting, interesting, and fun. How can you use this natural curiosity to make your workday better?