Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 13, 2021
By Neil Senturia
poiler alert. This column runs the serious risk of not being politically correct. Just read or rip it up, but don’t send me emails telling me that I am an insensitive lout who doesn’t get it.
It turns out, no surprise, that humor in the workplace (not the wokeplace) is serious business. Two Stanford professors, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, actually teach a course on the subject. They say, “humor is an under-leveraged superpower in business.”
Cue laugh track here.
When it comes to coaching CEOs, I am a strong advocate for a few things. First, a few years of psychotherapy would certainly do no harm. Second, taking some classes in improvisation could be very helpful. Everyone thinks they can think on their feet, but most of us are wearing two left shoes (high heels included) and it is a studied art. It can be learned, and it is powerful, but it is not the natural default.
And finally, learning to laugh at yourself is an excellent first assignment. Telling a joke is hard to do well, making people feel at ease with a humorous turn of phrase takes practice, and creating comfortable humor in the workplace without getting sued or fired is, at the moment, very challenging.
Many studies show with absolute certainty, if you laugh, you will live longer. Chuckling only adds a few years; you need to let it out loud.
Bagdonas says, “Laughing actually changes the chemistry of our brains, making us more creative, bonded and resilient.” She says that humor is an “elixir for trust and an antidote to arrogance.” But what I think is funny may not match what you think. And the dark but true side is that humor has at its core the concepts of irreverence, making fun of and causing some level of embarrassment. Someone or something gets called out. Whether it is Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Dave Chappelle. They all leverage some unspoken rules that put us on the side of “we get it,” and some of that “getting it” is stereotypical and racist and rude.
A recent “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode has a scene with two Black men feeling good about themselves and their desire to eat watermelon. I assure you this was both funny and offensive at the same time. Consider the groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family.” Archie Bunker was hilarious and outrageous and insulted every ethnic category, but at its core, and this is crucial, while we laughed at one moment, in the next, the humor also enlightened and made us more aware of our own bigotries.
Now in 2021, it seems that we are tipping (in my humble opinion) to the other end of the scale, where even knock-knock jokes are suspect in the workplace or in the public square. One of the unintended consequences of cancel culture and political correctness is that the lack of laughter actually impacts your happiness.
Bagdonas and Aaker play it safe and obvious. They say, “never punch down or make fun of someone of lower status.” No argument there, but that does limit some of your best shots on goal. Finding just the right edge of humor to balance on is the whole game.
Seriously, folks, (that is a trick word, designed to let you get away with a barb and then take it back at the same time), you cannot demean or humiliate, and for a complete list of forbiddens, consult your mother or your HR director.
But, if a CEO/leader can find that small space (a lot smaller than it used to be) to stand where he or she can engage the team with humor, where a shared laugh breeds community and collegiality, and finally, where the humor increases the humanity of the recipients, then that is the “right stuff.” The best humor can ease an awkward pain and create a shared bond.
It is proven that physical laughter decreases stress hormones, increases immune cells, releases endorphins and creates infection-fighting antibodies. So, my next company is going to make a medical device that uses artificial intelligence to channel Groucho Marx and is embedded in your frontal cortex so that in moments of stress, if you say the magic word, the duck will come down and give you $50.
Rule No. 692: