Does your workplace have an office clown? Is your office environment one that encourages a hearty laugh, or is humor seen as something that isn’t sufficiently serious – or even unprofessional?
Workplace that have a hearty dose of humor as part of their culture often boast higher happiness, wellness, and more open communication than those who don’t foster their collective funny bone. So how can we build up a sense of humor in ourselves AND our workplace?
On today’s Talk Shop, workplace culture expert and international speaker Mike Kerr gives us the scoop on humor – what is really is, how we can make our offices funnier places to be, and how we can learn to embrace our own funny side…even if you can’t tell a joke to save your life.
It’s time for less stress and more success with Humor at Work!
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You know I love hearing from you – what’s your favorite way of lightening up the mood at work? Share your ideas, jokes, punchlines, or funny stories in the comments below.
Lauren Sergy: Mr. Michael Kerr thank you for coming to TalkShop interviews to share your light and your wisdom with use. And I am going to hit you right off the bat with the question “How on earth did you get into the business of helping other businesses become funnier?” Cus that is an interesting offer.
Mike Kerr: That is an interesting offer, thank you for that. The way I got into this crazy business, many moons ago, two decades ago, I got into senior management in the government. It was a soul sucking, fun sucking place. People were losing their sense of humor by the day. I am known as a leader for using humor effectively in meetings and maintaining moral, and all that good stuff. Valuing my sense of humor and watching people lose their sense of humor is interestingly enough, is what got me into it in a professional manner.
I attended my very first humor conference, and yes those exist, and decided I’ve had enough working in such a toxic, dysfunctional environment. So, I was going to make it my mission to talk about how work is too important and we owe it to ourselves, our families, to create the most fun, productive workplace possible. Because I was always known for my humor i decided to use humor as my vehicle to talk about rocking, inspiring workplaces.
Lauren: So, is this lack of the haha something that is inherent to governments, or is it more an overall big corporate problem where people aren’t recognizing and leveraging what they can get out of having a good sense of humor?
Mike: It varies. For sure i have seen gov departments where I’ve seen a lot of humor and a lot of fun.
Lauren: Ministry of Silly Walks?
MIke: Ministry of Silly Walks. There you go, a classic one. So it is easy to stereotype different types of professions and say those are more serious, or more conservative. I’ve seen examples of every type of government or private business of both extremes: where they embrace a ton of fun into everything they do, and sometimes – you know what is interesting Lauren? Sometimes in the same organization you see these extremes. You got one department and moral is through the roof, people are happy to be there, and the other one… let’s just say not so much.
Lauren: You get the sad faces at the sad desks sharing sad birthday cake on sad birthday Friday every month. So what does, in these contexts then, because there is no way just having humor as a part of your corporate culture is wandering around sharing jokes. What does humor look like in an organizational culture context?
Mike: Right. You nailed it. It is certainly not about sharing jokes, being the office clown. It is not always even being about being funny. Having a sense of humor is much broader than that. As I talk about it in the human advantage, it sets a perspective about human issues, it is about being more human and real and genuine. It is about having a sense of balance and finding the funny in our work life. About laughing more at ourselves, after all as I like to say, it is not a truism that the more we take ourselves seriously, the less others will take us seriously. Which is ironic!
When we talk about humor that is the definition I like to start with. We can’t treat it as window dressing or a band aid solution. It has to be incorporated into the culture, it has to be organic. I talk a lot about how humor can be an effective tool to build an inspiring workplace culture, but it is also the end result of working in that environment. It has to be about living and keeping values in our workplace culture. Then it becomes easy to have humor in the workplace. It is the byproduct of working in a successful organization as much as it is a factor of success.
But it can’t be forced, it can’t be fake, it has to be ingrained into your culture.
Lauren: How do we do that than? How do we ingrain this into the culture. I kid you not, this is a true story, I worked in a place with a toxic work environment with a six month turn over, with a very small team. One thing that the director and the assistant director would try to do, is at the start of meetings, we would go around the table and share a funny joke or story. And this was in a sad workplace, so I think this isn’t the type of implementation you recommend when bringing humor into the workplace. Where can people start?
Mike: Well that is not a bad place to start if your culture is reflecting that. As you pointed out too there is a disconnect between what you were doing and what you were feeling.
First and foremost, you have to start with building that positive workplace and culture, otherwise people will view so many of these attempts as cynical. They will roll their eyes and think “how long is this long to last”. It has to be built in.
A couple of things, just to get started – and Lauren I am sure you know and talk so much of this: it certainly helps if it starts at the top. People will look and see what they are laughing at. The senior leaders set the tone, set the mood, they are able to laugh at themselves, if they are seen injecting some fun and humor and even some silliness into the workday, volumes for the rest of the team and the organization. Ideally you want to start at the top.
Somethings that really work well if you want to get started (back to your meeting example) is look at your meetings! Meetings I think are one of the key places where you can build your culture, but they also should reflect a culture that we want. If you want your workplace to be an innovative, open, honest, caring, fun workplace, then boy your meetings better reflect all those values. I really stress to get your meetings right, even if it a fun goofy icebreaker, or a humor moment, or assigning fun roles in a meeting, there’s all sorts of ideas.
In fact I have a handout on my website “50 Fun Ways To Add A Little Humor To Your Meetings”. An american scientific study even found that those meetings that have lots of fun and laughter are the most effective meetings. People tend to be more creative, more open and honest. That is one thing I stress, get your meetings right!
Another thing I am a huge fan of, and every inspiring workplace I have researched and worked at, are huge believers in the power of rituals and traditions. Rituals and traditions give everyone something to look forward to, to reminisce about, and they give that sense of shared history. Shared team experience becomes a part of your DNA, and you’ll look for opportunities to create rituals and traditions. A great way to keep some of that light alive on an ongoing basis.
So maybe it it a fun way to kick off or end the work week. It doesn’t have to be outrageous, it can be ending your work week with a huddle on Friday afternoon where everyone reviews their top three wins of the week. Or maybe it is a fun ritual to celebrate different team milestones, maybe celebrating wacky theme days.
One of my clients uses Third Person Thursdays. So everyone has to talk about themselves in the third person. How could smile while saying “Mike is looking forward to the meeting this afternoon!” That is the kind of stuff that has a huge impact on workplace culture.
Lauren: It sounds genuinely fun too! If people are looking at experimenting, it is not that they have to suddenly become some sort of stand-up comic. Like you say, there can be a gentle introduction, experiment with a few relatively easy things, but make it a part of your regular. Make it a part of your regular practice at work, and then it will bleed into it.
Mike: Right, so it becomes a habit. Just start slowly and with something that won’t scare people. A lot of the time I hear “Our team members are introverts.” and I need to stress this. We are not talking about being introverted or extroverted. We are not talking about being unprofessional in anyway. Somewhere from 30-50% are thought to be introverts. It is about just creating those safe moments where everyone can participate and will add to the workplace in a positive way.
Lauren: I love it. Another thing about your work that I love is the humor advantage. Oh, such a good book! There was a line right in the first chapter, I am looking at it right now and I literally went “Yes!” when I read it, I was so happy. Right in the first chapter you state “Rarely are we more real than when we laugh, we are never more human than when humor shatters the professional mask we sometimes wear, revealing the true human being lurking underneath the corporate façade. Thank you.
Mike: Absolutely. And that goes to so much of the heart of why this matter as why it works.
Lauren: What is it about ourselves that we are revealing through our humor. I am very curious about that, what others can learn about us as human beings from our sense of humor and how we engage in fun and funny things.
Mike: That is a big question. So often we feel we have to play this role at work. I have to be the business person, or I have to do the presentation so I have to go into presentation mode. We play these roles or we defer to how other people are acting and we wear these fake masks. And we know from so much research that some of the most effective workplaces are where people are allowed to being their authentic selves to work.
So humor helps us be more vulnerable, when we laugh we become a group of kids. When we laugh at ourselves it shows that we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we can open up about things. We become more real. I just read last night about a survey about millennials, where 82% of millennials say their sense of humor is how they identify themselves. It is a big change from other generations and the past! They don’t identify so much by the music they listen to or by the sports teams they watch, it by the humor. I thought that was fascinating.
Lauren: It truly is. Of course that notion where millennials are seeing it as such an intrinsic part of our identity, I am one of those older millennials and it makes sense to me. It is one of the defining aspects of my personality. It makes sense that it would also help to make a brand identity much more accessible to the people it’s trying to reach.
Now one of the ways that you really strongly advocate using humor is to help people understand and remember your message. Message can be very important and broad, It could be your branding or your argument. So, what is it about humor that makes it so accessible and sticky in our brains
Mike: Well there’s a few things. What we know from research, what matters is that humor has to be relevant. Even humor that is not relevant, the studies show that it helps us remember some stuff, but not as powerfully as when we wrap a message around humor. I think there is a couple of reasons why that works.
One it just attracts attention. Our brains literally perk up when we hear, see, or listen to humor. From brain scans, it activates a different part of the brain, there’s a connection. You probably talk about this Lauren, when messages are tied to emotion we tend to remember them more. There is a response. In fact when you laugh, there is a physical response, so it changes our bodies chemistry. There’s a cognitive response, it changes how we look at something. And that helps to get us to look at things in a weird way or in a way that we never considered before. There is an emotional response too. Humor is a triple threat and I think all of that together helps us reach that message.
Lauren: Right. And speaking geek to speaking geek one of the ways I love using humor and really recommend this, is to break tension. I found when you can build up tension with your message and your presentation, you can really build it up with the audience and then you bust out with just an absurd but relevant comment or statement, and they feel that switch- the emotional hit of when that tension was broken just drives the message home. Magic when it happens!
Mike: Absolutely and you watch the speaker, a really good storyteller or comedian, watch them and see how they build those moments of tension so beautifully. The release is like a safety release valve. You build up and build up and then relax. The tension thing too, we have to remember as presenters, it helps us (inaudible).
If you want to relax as a presenter, the more you add a little humor, the less stressed out, the less tension you’re going to feel. It goes back to that authenticity thing too!
I know I don’t do as much coaching as you do but I’ve coached some executives over the years. It is amazing to see those moments where they have that mask and then time and time again they mess up. They screw up big time. Then what happens is fascinating! They quickly step away from where they were standing, their whole body relaxes, and they laugh and talk differently. This is always the point where I go “Who is this person?” This is the person we want to hear from!
Lauren: It’s like “It’s a human!”
Mike: It wasn’t until they screwed up that the human revealed themselves.
Lauren: And in terms of using it to get over mistakes as well, a very brief example: I was giving a talk to a conference of government workers and at the very end of a long conference for them, I got into a rolling series of visual jokes in my slides about pies. It was pie joke after pie joke after pie joke and when I was creating the slides I got completely run away with my own enormous cleverness, and I created one- and I realized what all these recommendations might seem like- click and there was a pie in the sky. I’m like [no audio] and no one laughed. It was the led balloon in the audience. I was like “it’s a pie in the sky people, throw me a bone here!” As soon as I said that they just roared with laughter. But then they were in with it on me, so it didn’t work who cares. They can share that moment with me.
Mike: I love those moments. Often you get a bigger laugh after the recovery after the non laugh.
Lauren: So I am going to tap into the coaching side here. Whenever I bring up humor in the public speaking training I offer there are always two kinds of push back I get. I know you get these too so here they are. I want you to respond to them.
Number 1: but isn’t that unprofessional?
Mike: Right. I do hear that but not as much as I used to. People are embracing this more and more. What I stress again is taking ourselves and those things we have no control over not too seriously. I am not talking about laughing at your customers! I am talking about laughing with your customers. I am not talking about being unprofessional in anyway.
Here is the way I would reframe it. What is unprofessional about taking the time and thought to put some humor into something so you are more effective? What is is unprofessional about making your culture more effective? What is unprofessional about treating your employees or customers like real, breathing, human beings? What is unprofessional about making sure you are managing stress effectively? When you talk about results, like I do in the book, when you talk about organizations that focus and are intentional about their culture, because great cultures don’t happen by accident, and incorporate a lot of fun and humor they have lower employee absences, lower employee turnover rates, higher sales, all of those numbers move in the right direction.
So what on earth is unprofessional abou that? It is about generating real results. It is just being a little more human and having a little more fun to generate better results.
Lauren: Mic drop. That is a mic drop! I am going to quote that bit from ou Mike and I will credit you I promise. So here is the second push back: but I am not funny!
MIke: Yes I get that all the time. My smart-alec response is neither am I at times and it is pretty painful when you are being paid to be funny and they didn’t find it funny. I thought it was hilarious!
Again here is what I stress, it is not about telling jokes. There is no correlation. I am thought of as a pretty funny guy, but I am a horrible joke teller. I know people who are great joke tellers and have a really crappy sense of humor. It is not even always about being funny. Again, it is about appreciating the humor, and going and finding the humor that is out there in your day to day lives, and not taking yourself too seriously, just not getting in the way of people and squashing other people’s sense of humor.
If you do not think of yourself of a naturally funny person, there are things you can do. There have been things proven in research to help develop your sense of humor to be effective. One of the simplest things anybody can do is start a humor file or a humor booklet, and start collecting funny stuff that is related to your business, to your profession, because again you want to keep it relevant. Just keep those funny weird articles or newspapers you come across.
I do this all the time! All you are doing is reporting the news, but you don’t have to be funny. Anyone can get a laugh out of it. One of the lines I do in some of my talks is from a social read survey where they suggested Alberta is Canada’s leading capital of photocopy machine rage. 52% of Albertans have physically assaulted a photocopier! Now that is just something I happened to come across but because I am always looking for stuff like that, I cut it out and saved it. Now anyone is going to get a laugh from that story!
The other things, now this has been shown to be one of the fastest things to grow your humor perspective is practice looking for the unintentional funny stuff. The stuff that isn’t supposed to be funny, the unintentional. Those weirdly written newspaper headlines or those signs where if you pause a few seconds and do that quizzical dog look, what was that? That really does help you grow your sense of humor.
When I was back in my government days, I had a file where I collected things. Like the time this woman called me up from Ottawa doing a survey, and this is an example of accidental humor, and says “Mr. Kerr, I need to know the number of people in your department, broken down by sex.” And I paused and I don’t think I am allowed to ask that question at work! Of course she realized how she had phrased it and I have massive files of the accidentally funny stuff.
Every town has one of those ear piercing shops with those goofy signs “Ears Pierced While You Wait!” so there is an alternative to the whole procedure. So this stuff is everywhere.The key is just to practice looking for it and collect it.
Lauren: I completely agree. The more time you spend time noticing it, the more time you spend building up that proverbial or not so proverbial funny bone. And then you realize it is everywhere in the ridiculous, the awful, or even the totally mundane.
Mike: Yes. I agree 100%. Again, remember at the heart of it it is not about being funny. It is about being more human and more real.
Lauren: So I have mentioned your book The Human Advantage: Some Businesses Are Laughing All The Way To The Bank. I love it. Now can you tell us a little bit more about this book like you who wrote it for and how clients have been using it in their businesses?
Mike: I would hope it has got a pretty broad appeal. I can’t think of too many organizations that could not benefit from more humor in their workplace. You know one of the things I stress is even if adding more humor into your business or workplace doesn’t create all the success I suggested it could, what would you rather have? The same level of success but at least be having more fun and enjoying yourself more. It seems like a no brainer kind of question to me.
So I wrote the book really for anybody who is, I guess some of my ideal readers and the ones I have heard back from the most who had lost their mojo at one point. Who didn’t have that loving feeling anymore, who are frustrated by their culture, who wanted to make a difference. And yes, again, when leaders read the book, when managers read the book, they can probably get a little more out of it than front line employees, but I have heard back from CEOs on down about the impact it has made on at least their own mindset. Recognizing that ultimately that is all we can do, changing our own mindset, and helping them contribute to their culture and give to the cause.
So I hear back from all sorts of people and what is really cool is all over the world from companies that have implemented some of the ideas, and they get so excited. “We thought this was going to be goofy, but we tried it and everybody loves it!” So it is very cool to see those results.
Just a little while ago I got a rave testimonial, I was speaking in South Carolina a couple years ago, and they sent me their latest customer scorecards that they got. All of the customers commented on how much more fun their business is, how much more fun it was to work with them. And he wrote me this lovely note which just made my day saying “This is so much because of you and your book. So I just want to say thanks to you because we have totally transformed our business because of the ideas in your book.” That is why you write these things.
Lauren: It is. It is one of those things where you frame and put on the wall to look at when you are having a rough day. That is great.
So as we close off, have you come across a particularly good example of humor in action in a business context that you can share with us? Any good stories?
Mike: Yeah, I come across this stuff all the time, but I do have a favourite one that I just came across a little while ago. I just love this because one of the things I really push is using humor to personalize, humanize your business, so you don’t sound like a blah blah blah corporate entity. It sounds like there is a real human being behind this business.
So I ordered some deodorant from a business called Native Deodorant and the correspondence that I got from them made me smile. I want to take the time to read it, because I think it is just awesome.
So I placed the order online, a few minutes later I get this email and I thought how cool is this? And why aren’t we all communicating like this with everything we have to do.
“Michael, you rock! It was just another mundane day at our office when suddenly Jackie took another look at her computer and her eyes widened. ‘We did it!’ she exclaimed! We got an order from Michael Kerr. Laura jumped out of her chair and ran over to Jackie’s desk. She didn’t even read the entire email, she just saw ‘Michael’ and started screaming in delight. ‘OMG,’ Laura shouted ‘this is real! We have an order from Michael.’ The entire office erupted in applause, ‘Party In The USA’ blared from the speakers, confetti rained down from the ceiling, and champagne bottles were popped. The entire Native team is thrilled that you are a customer. Thank you so much for your support and for giving us another reason to cheer on another champion of health.”
How cool is that? Doesn’t it make you like these folks now?
Lauren: Absolutely! For something that is so dull and utilitarian as deodorant!
Mike; I know, I know! So, at a personal level we like people who are more fun. It is not rocket science. At a corporate level, we like businesses that use humor. It ups the likeability factor.
Lauren: That is great. Well Michael, I want more people to like you, and you are an easy guy to find, but I want you to make it a little easier for us. Can you tell us where you hang out online and what pages or channels you like to hang out over? How can we get more of you
Mike: Well anybody is invited of course to drop by the mothership website which is www.humoratwork.com or mikekerr.com gets you there.I have got video, blogs, articles. I am proud to say my workplace blog was awarded last year as one of the top 75 workplace blogs on the planet.
Lauren: Nice! Congratulations!
Mike: Thank you! If you want a weekly reminder for some of this stuff, I invite people to sign up for my weekly inspiring workplace humor at work and if you sign on the website you get a free ebook “340 Ways To Put Humor To Work”. You can start putting some of these ideas we talked about into practice. You can start having your message be heard, all that good stuff. And then if you want to connect with me on my Youtube channel or LinkedIn or Twitter, you can find those connections on the website as well.
Lauren: Well thank you so much and again I do hope everyone listening, everyone watching please do go out, check out Mike’s site, sign up for his newsletter, you won’t regret it. He is full of fantastic regular information.
That’s a wrap for today, Mike. Thank you so much for being a part of the TalkShop interviews. It was wonderful, and an inspiration as always.
Mike: Fabulous to be here, Lauren! Thank you so much for the shoutout!
Lauren: Oh it was great! And I would like to thank everyone watching and who hung out with us today, who listened. And please, if you found today’s fun informational interview very interesting and helpful to become a better communicator, please head over to laurensergy.com and pop your name in the sign up box, so you can get access to even more interviews like this, from experts like Mike.
I look forward to seeing you on the next TalkShop, have a great week, smile, find the funny in the everyday and I will see you soon.
Mike: Bye everyone!