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Positive Humor Belongs in the Workplace

Aug 30, 2008
Research in psychoneuroimmunology (the study of the interaction of behavioral, neural, and endocrine factors and the functioning of the immune system) reveals that stress and the resultant way we think can have positive or negative effects on our immune system. Laughter results in breaking the stress cycle, positive effects on the immune system, and helps in the development and maintenance of a positive attitude. There are many stressors currently facing employees during this time of depressed economy. Relieving stress is a key to keeping employee performance and productivity at a premium!

Recent research is showing that most diseases are stress related. Absenteeism, insurance premiums, accidents (on and off the job), interpersonal conflicts and violence are connected to physical and mental diseases and are affecting the bottom line. Businesses that support and encourage appropriate positive humor in the workplace are finding that it can actually be good for business.

Positive humor is fostered by a positive attitude, positive creativity and constructive actions. All of these are keys for dealing with new business challenges, as well as the associated change and stress. With supportive research, I assert that

People who are humorous are more playful

People who are more playful are more creative

People who are more creative find more solutions

People who find more solutions can better deal with everyday challenges, change, and the associated stress.

Tips for Using Positive Humor in the Workplace

By all means tell jokes and humorous stories. However, recognize that they are about 5% of all possible techniques to evoke mirth and subsequent laughter. I encourage you to be creative with the many other ways to be humorous.

Listen to great joke tellers, learn their jokes and pass them on as you see fit. More importantly, put on your creativity hat to improve such jokes and to make up your own jokes. Many great jokes come from real life situations and the creative license of the person telling them.

Tell humorous stories. Tell these one-on-one, in small co-worker groups, or during a presentation just for fun or to introduce a concept or principle. The greatest reservoir for humor is your life, especially your childhood. Take the time to sit down, close your eyes, and reflect on fun things in your life from early childhood, through elementary school, middle school, high school, secondary and post-graduate education. Then, go through all your jobs, military service, church events and activities, community events. Think about fun things you and your friends did. Now, write them down by title or outline. By taking things from your life, you will connect with your audience as do the best humorists.

Emphasize the importance of "positive" humor. Most comedians are into "negative" humor, i.e., putting down people. Most jokes, but not all, are put-downs and that's why some people avoid telling them. Some of us tend to use put-downs with our friends to show that we care about one another, to laugh at ourselves and to bond. I'm okay with that. Some of us use put-downs to intentionally hurt others. I'm not okay with this.

If there is no malice in your heart, there will be no malice in your jokes or your creativity.

By using creativity, one can change a socially unacceptable joke to one that is appreciated, remembered and used by others. Changing offensive words and using self-deprecation to change are the keys. Making up funny sounding nonsense words to substitute for offensive words is a fun challenge. Once you learn how, you get better and better.

Making fun of yourself is an age-old humor strategy that works extremely well! People love other people who can laugh at themselves rather than trying to hurt someone else. A little sarcasm is okay. However, if it is the only meal you serve, people will stop coming to your table! Positive humor and positive attitude go hand in hand. Here's some advice: Keep employees with negative humor, negative attitudes and foul mouths away from the frontline or else you will lose customers!

Have a training session on "positive" humor in the workplace. Identify "positive" and negative" humor. Talk about the application of positive humor and positive attitude to customer service. Distinguish the difference between taking risks to be humorous and "rampant silliness" that will turn off customers (internal and external). Emphasize that we all have different senses of humor and that you will never be able to please everyone. However, it is important to be assertive and set boundaries with people who insist on telling certain kinds of jokes that are offensive (sexual harassment, racism, and the over- the- top derogatory words and phrases). Encourage constructive feedback from co-workers so employees who use offensive language will understand. Discuss the appropriate times and places for the humorous activities suggested in this article because they differ from organization to organization.

Use ice breaker and energizer games for group settings. Make them invitational (some people just don't want to participate). One of my favorite ice breakers involves getting people to share humorous stories about themselves with one another. For a quick and fun energizer with a group, I lead aerobic patting. Starting with my hands, arms, head and neck, then down to the front of my thighs, my shins, my calves, the back of my thighs, ending at my "booty." In both of these cases, people are laughing and no one has told a joke. Like I always say, you don't have to tell a joke to get people to laugh. There are books written on ice breakers and energizers, so all you need to do is a little research, as well as use your creativity. Make up your own with items like balloons, balls, marbles, rubber chickens, stuffed animals, candy bars, fruit, marshmallows, etc., etc.

On breaks or during celebrations, play nonsense, cooperative and low competition games for fun. Emphasize that it doesn't matter who wins the game; it's for fun! The more mistakes that are made, the more fun it is. These games are true tests of whether or not people are able to lighten up! Play nonsense, cooperative and low competition games for fun. Emphasize that it doesn't matter who wins the game; it's for fun! The more mistakes that are made, the more fun it is. These games are true tests of whether or not people are able to lighten up! A great nonsense game I love to play alone, as well as with others, is Bop-It. It's a game that can be played on short or long work breaks. Caution: It's addictive! You can purchase various sizes of Bop-It at your local toy store.

Use fun props. Having a prop box in the workplace is a good idea. Funny glasses are always great props. You have a choice of Grouch/Beagle Puss glasses, huge sunglasses, thick bottle glasses, zany shaped and colored glasses, and glasses with funny shaped eyes. Turn your back to a person or group, slip on the glasses, turn around and make a funny comment. You'll get a laugh or a groan (a groaner is better than nothing) every time. I like to use props to communicate an important observation about co-workers behaviors. For example, if one of your co-workers who you consider is a friend is acting like a jerk, walk over to that person's desk while they are there and sit a stuffed Eyore (the donkey in Winnie the Pooh books) in an auspicious place. Say nothing, just give the person a big smile and walk away. Since stuffed Eyores come in different sizes, having at least two will give you an opportunity to show whether you thing the person is being a big or a little jerk. Other things like a huge aspirin you can get at a magic/clown stores can tell someone that they are being a pain. A heart balloon can tell someone that they have touched your heart with their act of kindness. Smile always helps to keep the messages in a fun context.

Noisemakers and humorous musical instruments really get attention. I love the sliding flutes, train whistles, zinger whistles, kazoos and nose flutes. People can't stop laughing when I play a "nose" flute for them. Even better is when I try to teach them to play. It has something to do with images, I think! When I give new nose flutes out to attendees in my programs, someone always ask if they have been recycled. It always gets a laugh.

Practical jokes can be a lot of fun! There are practical jokes you can buy, e.g., the "whoopee" cushion, the hand buzzer, exploding golf balls, etc., but the best ones are those you think up on your own spontaneously. Be carefulhave fun but avoid scaring people into heart attacks. And remember, what goes around, comes around. Be willing to accept what comes back to you and laugh about it.

Use string figures and balloon sculptures are great props to help you teach points in a fun way, to help a coworker get out of the dumps (make their favorite balloon animal), and to decorate in fun ways for celebrations. Both are easy to learn. You can find books on string figures at bookstores. Appropriate balloons, balloon pumps and books on balloon sculpting can be found in magic stores and toy stores.

Celebrate successes and achievements (small and big) and recognize coworkers with fun gifts and cards, as well as personalized gifts. Recognition is something everyone wants. Whether it's job success, personal achievement, birthday, holiday, other special occasions, or "just because I'm thinking of you," we all like the special attention given to us. Whether it's giving humorous cards, gag gifts, crazy candy, goofy flowers, funny skits or birthday roasts, coworkers will appreciate one another and enjoy their jobs better when they are celebrated and recognized. Important Note: It's okay to buy things for people, but making something for them will be appreciated more and be more memorable. Why? We show our love/how much we care when we take time to personalize gifts.

Create a "Fun" Bulletin Board. This is a place for sharing cartoons, email jokes, poems, short stories, photographs, quotes, humorous newsletters, etc. It's a good place to post notices of local fun activities, such as performances by humorists, plays, festivals, concerts, and other activities that will help employees have joy in their lives.

Share humorous audio tapes and watch humorous videotapes. On work breaks, coworkers can share humorous audio tapes (purchased or self-recorded) or watch humorous videotapes. The old time radio bloopers are my favorite. Taping radio programs, like Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, etc., is a good way to store humor for a later time when a humor boost is needed. Remember the scout motto: Be Prepared!

Use humor in training. Let me say it loudlyTRAINING DOES NOT HAVE TO BE BOOOOOOORING!!! Lectures and reading off of PowerPoint slides is the best way to bore your audience. When employees are bored or fall asleep during training, they fail to get the messages. Research in adult training shows that individuals learn best when they are entertained, involved in experiential activities and get some laughs. Human Resources can use some humorous videotapes for training. John Cleese and other humorists have some great training videotapes available. Having in-house trainers, and other presenters in the organization, take train-the-trainer courses on "edu-tainment should help in their presentations. Additionally, hiring speakers and trainers, who are known for their "edu-tainment" abilities, for special presentations can be a good way to show staff appreciation.

Reading is usually thought of as an individual activity; however, reading humorous short stories or poems out loud to others is another possibility. After reading some humorous material, one can share it during work breaks, during training, before or after work. Sharing humorous reading resources might peak the interest of others enough for them to start reading similar things. Who knows when it will help someone who is always in a bad mood?

Sharing cartoons by clipping them out of the newspaper, photocopying (sometimes modifying) and posting on a bulletin board, or just giving them to someone personally, can help coworkers get a laugh. Cartoon books are great gifts, not only for others but also for yourself. I have given myself all the collections of "The Far Side, "Calvin and Hobbes," "For Better or Worse" and "Herman." With CRS (Can't Remember Stuff), I get to read them again every year and laugh just as much as the first time.

With many people having e-mail now, sending and receiving humorous material is much easier. (Yes, yes, yes, let's not overdo it! Eliminating it altogether prevents some much needed stress relief.) I keep a humor buddy list and exchange materials on a daily basis. When I get notes back from someone saying that a particular piece helped her or him to cope, I know it's a good thing to do. Share humorous email newsletters. Maybe sending them to one's home email address is more appropriate, depending upon an organization's policy.

Learn new skills or renew old skills to share with coworkers in humorous ways. Here are some suggestions unmentioned heretofore: magic; buffoonery juggling; mouth sounds and cartoon animal voices (e.g., Mickey Mouse
About the Author
Avery M. Henderson, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a motivational speaker, trainer, humorist and "edu-tainer". His mission is "Helping to raise corporate productivity and morale through positive living, emphasizing humor, creativity, teamwork, peaceful conflict resolution and servant-leadership.
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