I must confess to being a bit jealous of Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. They get to teach a course on the use of humor in business. It seems like they have a great time doing it. They meet a lot of fun people and do a lot of interesting activities. (As well as doing improv sessions which should be recognized as a form of cruel and unusual punishment).
The Power Of Humor
The aim of the book is to show the power of humor. It can make things go more smoothly at work. Things can just be better with a bit of levity. The authors are keen to keep expectations low. Everyone doesn’t need to be constantly hilarious, just the occasional light bit of pleasantry seems to be enough. They want to reassure you that you too can be funny. I was a little insulted. Obviously, I’m massively humorous and everyone thinks I am. I didn’t know why they talked so much about how I, the reader, might not be.
How Not To Be David Brent
Broadly speaking I’m with them. I don’t see why workplaces have to be like someone has just died. (In a literal, not a comedic, sense). Still, I do worry about encouraging managers to joke and ‘mandate fun’. It all felt a bit David Brent at times. (This is the manager from the UK office who thinks he is a great entertainer with significant challenges at times. The training day episode is something to behold). At the risk of seeming too staid, compulsory fun is always a bit worrying.
[After a mistake the manager] chooses a song evocative of her gaffe and invited employees to dance along.Aaker and Bagdonas, 2021, page 141
I’m cringing just thinking about it.
The Least Funny President
One thing I have to say I found less than plausible was their ranking of presidential humor. I don’t mean something subjective — one may or may not have liked the recent president’s humor. Instead, I want to dispute on matters of obvious objective truth.
If Dwight David Eisenhower, the second-least naturally funny president after Franklin Pierce, thought humor was necessary to win wars, build highways, and warn against the military-industrial complex, then you’d better learn to use it, too.Aaker and Bagdonas, 2021, page 29
Yet, Franklin Pierce was clearly funnier than Calvin Coolidge. My logic is watertight. Coolidge was known as Silent Cal. This implies that he only used physical comedy which objectively is just plain awful.
What To Do When You Mess Up Using Humor In Business?
Clearly, the thing running through most readers’ minds will be. “What if I mess up?” People are worried about using humor and sometimes for good reason. The authors try and address that concern. They give a case study of a manager who used inappropriate humor. The advice makes sense. You mess up, you say sorry, and you don’t do it again.
That said, the case study seemed a bit wet. I was hoping for something a bit more controversial. The manager realized joking about a person they had fired was wrong. As such, apologizing wasn’t that hard. Still, what if you think the joke was really funny and non-offensive? Do you retract the joke if anyone at all doesn’t like it but you don’t see why? Is that authentic? If people can’t have their own humor styles at what point do we become the humorless, corporate zombies that the authors want to avoid.
I appreciate there probably isn’t a solution for the problem that what people think is funny differs a lot between us. As such, if you are looking for a solution you won’t find one. I guess it is a bit like a lot of free speech issues: try and take any extreme position and things fall apart pretty quickly.
Still, it is nice to try and encourage a bit of fun at work. Maybe it’ll make workplaces more effective, at a minimum people should be happier which isn’t nothing.
If you want to add a bit of fun to your teaching try a movie, see here for some ideas.