What’s The Worst That Could Happen? A Fun Way For Your Team To Face Their Fears… Together

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?”
  3. 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

Avoid These 3 Outcomes Of Workplace Humor

Definitely avoid punching down (Source: Cambridge News)

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:

1. Distraction

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.

2. Division

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.

3. Demoralization

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.

Contact me at https://www.watercoolercomedy.org/booking