"A couple of Stanford business school professors decide to write a book about humor" sounds like the beginning of a joke. After all, academics aren't known for being hilarious, and let's face it, neither are businesspeople. But Humor, Seriously is a real thing.
The new book by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, who together teach a class on humor at work at Stanford Business School, takes a serious look at a lighthearted subject and finds solid evidence for the value of humor that even the most buttoned-up business type would find persuasive.
How to live longer and be more successful: laugh more.
Perhaps the most startling study comes out of Norway. After following more than 50,000 people for 15 years, it concluded people with a sense of humor live an average of eight years longer than people without. A little levity can literally lengthen your life.
It can also make you a better boss and more successful professional. Bosses with some semblance of a sense of humor are 27 percent more motivating, research has found, and their employees are 15 percent more engaged. Another study showed that adding a bad dad joke about your pet frog to a sales pitch increased customers' willingness to pay by 18 percent.
All of which adds up to a pretty strong case that humor is incredibly valuable. (If you need statistics to prove this you're probably in particularly dire need of more laughter in your life.) Which is why it's particularly striking how humorless many workplaces are.
The book goes into detail on the myths that make so many leaders fear humor at work, from a mistaken belief that laughter is unprofessional to baseless worries that they simply weren't born funny (everyone can develop their sense of humor, the authors insist). But the good news is you need not suffer through a perpetual shortage of smiles at your office. I spoke to Aaker and Bagdonas to get a sneak peak of a few tips from their book on how leaders can start making their offices safe for humor, and the benefits it brings.
1. Don't try to be funny.
Wait, what? Isn't the whole thesis of this book that you should try to crack up your co-workers? Nope, respond Aaker and Bagdonas. Few things are as painful as a Michael Scott-style boss who uses humor in a clueless, overbearing way. The point isn't to try to be the office standup. Instead, just aim to not kill the natural humor that's native to all human beings.
"Fun is not a top-down thing. It is not a leader's job to dictate the terms of the culture. It is a leader's job to signal that humor and fun are welcome here," insists Bagdonas. Instead of trying to supply all the LOLs yourself, keep an eye out for the levity of others. Then recognize and go along with their jokes.
The pair offer the example of Allbirds CEO Joey Zwillinger. When a member of his marketing team quipped that he'd wager a Frosé machine the company would hit $1.25 million in sales by the end of the summer, Zwillinger didn't give a polite chuckle or break out a spreadsheet and start arguing numbers. Instead, he took him up on the bet. And when the team hit the target, Zwillinger ponied up. Now the team is not only enjoying 'Frosé Fridays,' but also the benefits of a humor-friendly culture.
2. Uplevel the humorous.
Not only should you try to reward individual instances of levity as they arise, but as a leader look out for team members that employ humor in particularly effective ways. By praising their efforts and putting them in positions of leadership, you not only signal the kind of fun-friendly culture you value but also get the maximum impact out of your most humorous contributors.
3. Pay attention to status and style.
In their book, Aaker and Bagdonas outline four different humor styles, from the wholesome and understated "Sweetheart" to the more aggressive, spotlight-hogging "Standup." (Here's a quiz to find out which one you favor.) Working with your own natural style is a good idea in general, but the authors stress that not every style works in every situation.
Bagdonas gives the example of when, at the start of her career, she used to facilitate workshops for executives. As the most junior person in the room, she found the "Sniper" style helped her gain respect (as the name suggests this style is willing to mock but quietly). Now as a professor she finds the same style completely deflates students.
The lesson here is that "status is inextricably tied with humor," Bagdonas claims. Make sure the level of aggressiveness of your humor suits your position in the pecking order and avoid punching down.
4. See failed jokes as learning opportunities.
In our times of heightened awareness of social injustice, humor can feel particularly fraught. No one wants to offend and the consequences for getting it wrong can be severe. To make your office safe for humor, you need to acknowledge these anxieties and create space to deal with disagreements about where the boundaries of appropriateness lie.
Aaker and Bagdonas offer specific advice to guide you to vetting your own jokes to make sure they're workplace appropriate, but the pair also stresses that no matter how thoughtful you try to be (and you should definitely try to be thoughtful), disagreements over humor are inevitable.
"Humor exists in the space between the comedian and audience, which means it's very context-dependent," Aaker explains. You can't untangle the question of what's appropriate from the influence of culture and life experience. Those are different for each of us, so different people will find different things inappropriate.
You can't avoid that but you can be open to discussing disagreements when they arise. In their Stanford class, Aaker, Bagdonas, and their co-lecturers ask students to place particular jokes on a spectrum of appropriateness and talk through their decisions with classmates who respond differently. You could try something similar at your workplace, or just ensure you approach differing senses of humor with the same attitude.
"When we use humor and someone says, 'That's not funny', or 'That's offensive,' it's really easy to say they just didn't get the joke or they're being too sensitive," notes Bagdonas. Instead, when a joke falls flat, "lean in and actively engage." Having a conversation with those with differing sense of humor won't just mean more laughs, it will also boost your empathy.
5. Be prepared to apologize.
Discussions about boundaries are great, but sometimes you may still inadvertently put your foot squarely in your mouth. In those cases there is nothing to do but apologize promptly and learn from the experience. "When you decide that you are going to use humor, you need to be open to apologizing," Aaker underlines. "A boss or a manager who is not open to apologizing may be inadvertently squashing the opportunity to have humor and levity define the culture."
Take all these measures, and hopefully you'll soon be hearing more laughter around your office. Not only is now a time when we could particularly use more levity in our lives, but that extra humor should add up to better performance, more joy, and even more years of life for you and your team.