Humor on the Job: Nobody Is Going to Shoot You While They’re Laughing

By Barry Maher

What do you do when you’re making a presentation or just having a discussion and everything goes wrong, when you fumble or stumble, when you can’t find the numbers you need to refer to, when the numbers you do find are wrong?

Try laughter. Try making a joke out of it, using self-deprecating humor. It shows confidence. It shows that you’re amazed things went wrong. It makes what could be a problem fun for the people you’re dealing with.

Humor sells. In one study of humor in negotiation, “buyers” who made their final offer with a smile and a quip, “Well, my final offer is x dollars and I’ll throw in my pet frog,” were able to make the buy at a lower price. Sellers who laughed out loud were even more likely to grant concessions than those who didn’t. Imagine if the joke had actually been funny.

You can use humor to get attention, to build rapport, to break down resistance, to make a point more memorable: to get people to listen and to enjoy listening. The old dictum is true: when you’re funny you don’t have to yell. Always makes sure the humor is appropriate, of course; and always use it with care. Some people will throw up barriers if you get appear to be getting overly friendly too fast.

“If you would rule the world quietly,” Emerson said, “you must keep it amused.” You can rule the office the same way

In The Light Touch, humor expert, Malcolm Kushner tells a story of Adelle Roberts, a police officer called to the scene of a domestic disturbance. As she approached the house, a TV came flying out a window. She knocked loudly to be heard over the yelling.

“Who is it?” an angry male voice snarled.

“TV repairman,” Roberts replied.

The man burst into laughter, and opened the door. She probably wouldn’t have gotten quite that response if she’d said, “Police.”

Humor’s effectiveness in diffusing anger and breaking down resistance can be particularly important in today’s work environment. In one study, 49 percent of the respondents said they’re usually at least a little angry on the job. Forty-nine percent say they are usually angry.

I’ve known premise salespeople who have been threatened with guns. Some of them deserved it. Though that’s carrying sales resistance to an extreme.

Tip: Nobody is going to shoot you while they’re laughing.
Tip: Long after people have forgotten what was said, they’ll remember how they felt about the person who said it.

Self-deprecating humor is also a great way for executives and managers to put themselves on the same level as their subordinates. It shows they can take a joke, that they too put their pants or their pantyhose on one leg at a time.

When Jack Kennedy wanted to defuse the issue of his family’s wealth, he told everyone he’d just gotten a telegram from his father. “Dear Jack,” he read, “Don’t buy one more vote than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’ll pay for a landslide.”

A new manager was obligated to post a lengthy list of rules right after being promoted to the position: hardly the best rapport builder. He posted the list all right, but he signed it at the bottom, “A. Hitler, Gruppenfuehrer.” His superior snatched it off the wall as, “inappropriate.” Perhaps. But by then everyone had already seen it.

“We’d read the rules,” one worker reports. “We figured the Gruppenfuehrer was going to enforce them. We knew the iron fist was there, and we appreciated that he’d stuck it in a velvet glove and used it to poke a little fun at himself. Otherwise we’d have seen it as a new guy coming in and throwing his weight around.”

Another mid-level manager had a grumpy looking doll with a tape recorder inside that he’d programmed to say, “Get your mangy butts back on the job and stop wasting the company’s time.” The doll would deliver the message whenever the manager decided it was needed. People took the hint, and nobody was offended.

As humor expert Kushner says, “Learn to take your work seriously without taking yourself so seriously. No matter how serious your work or topic, it’s always safe to poke fun at yourself.”


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