When I bring up the subject of humor, what is the first thing that pops into your head?
A comedy show?
The fact that the British need a second ‘u’ in the word?
Whatever it may be, I just wanted to clear something up: humor (or humour) is not the same thing as jokes, comedy or even funny, so what is it?
Humo(u)r is an internal process that solves the tension of two competing thoughts by connecting them in new and unexpected ways.
Jokes are one way to connect these competing thoughts. Explained simply: all jokes are a form of humor, but not all humor is jokes.
Funny: Connecting competing thoughts may produce some unexpected results, which can lead to laughter, but the outcome of using humor need not always be funny.
Sense of humor: If you have a good sense of humor, it means you’re open to the idea of multiple unique ways of these competing thoughts. For example, if you laugh when someone teases you about losing your hair, you’re both holding onto your elevated sense of self-importance while being open to someone else’s observations. You can see the connection, and you’re willing to not hold so tightly to preconceived notions.
Comedy: The practice, science, and art of connecting two unlike thoughts — the setup to the punchline — until it generates laughter from an audience through repeated trial, error, and revision. Comedy can certainly include jokes, though they’re not always necessary, but a comedian must have a sense of humor. If a comic fails to work out the connections between his or her incongruous thoughts, there’s no way an audience will make those connections either, and everyone will be sitting in silence, wondering why this weird person is talking at them.
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.
If you were to go through my Twitter and Facebook feeds from ten years ago, not only would you notice how terrible my joke-writing was:
“If ranch dressing is made in a home with more than 1 floor, does that automatically make it house dressing?”
“Was walking by #Fraternity Row today and saw Kappa Kappa Kappa wasn’t one of them. Baffling.” — Why did I hashtag fraternity?
“Okay, a grim reaper costume wasn’t the best costume idea for our weekly visit to grandpa in hospice.” — I actually tagged Jimmy Fallon in this one, so I must’ve thought, “Yeah, this is the tweet that makes me famous.”
You’d also notice that I harbored completely different opinions about the world than I’ve shared recently on social media:
“Just saw a girl on campus wearing leather pants. the only time leather pants look good is never. No matter who u are,” — I emphatically retract this statement. Especially using “u” instead of the actual word.
“I LOVE carpet! Makes floors so much more tolerable.” — I live in a house that’s 90% hardwood floors and I LOVE it. It’s so much better for my tap dancing career.
“Mitt Romney keeps #poking me on Facebook. He’s got my #vote.” — I absolutely voted for Mitt in 2012, and it wasn’t because of all of the poking. At the time I was a staunch Republican, and there was nothing you could say to convince me otherwise.
Since then, I’ve gone back and deleted insensitive tweets — not to avoid one of my 225 raving fans seeing it and “cancelling” me, but because I’ve grown as a person and I actually care about people, so I’d rather not hurt anyone. Back then, I only cared about trying to be funny. I thought crossing the line when it came to jokes was the secret to funny, and if you were hurt, then you were being too sensitive. As “cancel culture” became more and more prevalent, I continued getting offended at other people’s offense until I came to the realization that if I want to make people feel good, I probably shouldn’t be writing jokes to offend them. Not only that, but I should probably learn to write better jokes.
Instead of saying, “I’m right, fuck off,” I opened myself up to new opinions, was able to see a bigger picture, and I’m now a much better comedy writer — not to mention I’m way happier because of it.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who don’t see conflicting opinions as opportunities for growth, but as personal attacks. The same goes for their past mistakes or being presented with new information that challenges their beliefs. It isn’t their fault — we’re wired to assign fixed orientations to objects, events, and ideas, so that when we’re taught to believe something, it becomes part of the core of who we are. In actuality, if our beliefs were more flexible, we’d be able to see a bigger picture, make more informed decisions, and have a higher chance of success and happiness. If we can simply be open to the idea that we may be wrong, we open ourselves up to unlimited possibilities.
The world is incredibly dynamic, and in order to keep up, we have to keep our minds agile and open to the potential of new thoughts, perspectives, and ideas.
Here are two simple self-talk techniques that psychologists recommend for resetting your perspective and opening yourself up to new possibility:
1. Say “for now”
Once my parents stopped telling me when to go to bed, I would stay up as late as possible and sleep until noon or later. I’d tell myself, “I’m a night owl” and “I’m not a morning person,” so every night, I’d find excuses as to why I had to stay up. Even on nights before I had to wake up early for an appointment, a meeting, or a speaking gig, I’d stay up until 3 AM, wake up at 7, wonder why I was tired, and be irritable the rest of the day. Then one day last year, I started saying, “I’m a night owl, for now,” and about a month into the pandemic this year, I began to go to bed before 2 AM and wake up before 8 AM. Now, it’s a daily habit, I’m way more productive, and I eat breakfast when it’s socially acceptable to eat breakfast. All it takes is the repetition of a simple, foreboding “for now,” to open your brain to the possibility of change, and you’ll be in bed by midnight and up before the sun comes up before you know it.
2. Ask “What else could be true?”
Over the last couple of days, my girlfriend has snapped at me over the littlest things: I asked a question during an unsolved mystery documentary about said documentary, I asked if she had taken the dog for a walk at all during the day, since he was bothering me to go outside. At first, all I wanted to do was focus on how irrational her yelling was, but once I pulled myself from the situation and asked “What else could be true?” I began to see a bigger picture. “What else could be true? Well first, asking questions about the same movie we’ve both been watching is annoying. Just watch the goddamn movie and let that answer your questions, David.” But by asking this question, I remembered that her job has been causing stress to the the point of anxiety, and I know that when I’m stressed, I get angry at the littlest things. Things that are no more responsible for my anxiety than my bed is responsible for the 3 hours of sleep I got after going to bed at 4 and waking up at 7. Because of this simple form of self-assessment, I avoided snapping back, I laughed to myself about my limiting thoughts, and now things are back to normal. (It also helps when you make her coffee and a breakfast sandwich).
Today, tonight during the presidential debate, or next week as you’re scrolling through the madness of social media, be open to expanding your perspective. Don’t be married to your ideas and stances, so that when you’re presented with new information or ideas, you stand in the way of your own growth. Heck, in ten years, I may use this blog post as an example for how much I’ll have changed, but what I do know for a fact is that I will always be open to applying new ideas to what I think I know. Also, don’t judge me on my joke writing from 2020… 2030 will be my year.
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.”