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Bring Your Humor to Work: Peter McGraw

Contributor: Morgan Motzel

Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday from 7 pm to 9 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Peter McGraw, Director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado and author of the new book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.  McGraw discussed insights from his research on the purpose and utility of humor in universal human interaction and shared proven strategies for using comedy to promote affinity, harmony, and innovation in the workplace.

Following are edited excerpts of Friedman’s conversation with McGraw:

Stew Friedman: How does the use of humor translate into the workplace? What was the most interesting insight you discovered about humor and its effect on work settings?

Peter McGraw: Peter McGrawFor one, I have come to the realization that work and play are not opposites – they are complementary. It’s certainly not the case that you could have a workplace that resembles the playground during recess, for example, because nothing would get done, but there’s good evidence that humor complements many of the things you want to get done in the workplace. One thing, for instance, is that people want to enjoy where they work. Good predictors of workplace retention are questions like – Do you have a best friend at work? Do you have a good relationship with you supervisor? Those kinds of things are facilitated by being able to have a good time and being able to have some fun. Workplaces are often stressful places, so being able to enjoy a few jokes along the way can help us get through the difficult times. Some of the work that we’ve been doing in the Humor Research Lab looks at “humor as complaining.” You take a situation that you are trying to complain about and instead you make humorous complaints about it. That tactic seems to be largely beneficial, especially when it comes to the idea of having other people support you.

SF: I think that idea could be helpful when put into practice. Some of our listeners might be interested in specific guidance on how to be funny in a way that is truly helpful as opposed to distancing people or alienating them with humor that is inappropriate or offensive.

PMG: That is always a big challenge because one of the things that follows from the perspective of humor as a “benign violation” is that humor can fail in one of two ways. First, an attempt to be funny can fail because you bore people – you don’t create sufficient enough violations. The worse failure, and the one that’s particularly a problem in the workplace, is that you fail to make a situation benign – you offend people or upset people.

SF: So, it’s better to be boring than offensive.

PMG: Certainly in the workplace, that is the case. We actually have two different names for these strategies which we talk about in The Humor Code. One that you can employ we call the Seinfeld strategy, named aptly after Jerry Seinfeld, who makes comedy out of nothing. His show is a show about nothing, where he basically points out what is wrong in the world. One of the nice things about this approach – and I think part of the reason why Jerry Seinfeld is so wildly popular and really doesn’t offend people very much – is that when he fails to be funny, Seinfeld just hasn’t created a sufficient enough violation. Instead, he just creates a benign situation. We call the other strategy the Silverman strategy, named after Sarah Silverman.  She starts with the violations and then has clever ways in which she makes those situations benign or okay, often putting them to a fun song, or saying them in a non-threatening sort of manner. The issue with this strategy, however, is that when Sarah fails, she commits a hate crime, and that’s really not a good place to be in the work environment.

My advice for the person who is eager to expand their comedic repertoire at work, especially folks in a management or a supervisory position, is to employ self-deprecation. When you engage in self-deprecation, you are essentially pointing out what is wrong with yourself, and by virtue of you doing it to yourself, you’re making that okay. Self-deprecation has two main benefits, which you often see in stand-up comedy. A lot of stand-ups begin their set by joking about the things that the audience can plainly see that seems wrong or amiss with them.

SF: Like how stupidly I dress or how ugly I am?

PMG: That’s right. So, first, that gets an initial laugh because it fits this idea of wrong-yet-okay very nicely – it’s a safe joke. But then, second, it also provides you some license, in that if you’re willing to criticize yourself that allows you to be able to criticize others.

SF: I see. So if you start with an opening where you are putting yourself down, that gives you license you to then have a critical voice toward others?

PMG: Yes, especially if you’re actually successful in making people laugh because that has even further benefits – we like funny people, and now we’re in a good mood, and so on.

SF: So that is a strategy people should try to employ; begin by making fun of themselves?

PMG: I do think that’s one good one. Another is finding a common enemy. For example, who or what is it that we all can agree upon and all of laugh about together? The real key when you think about humor in the workplace is that you want peoples’ jokes to be inclusive rather than exclusive – you want to bring people together, not push them apart. A clear guideline ends up being knowing and understanding your target. Yourself is a good target for you to choose because we can all laugh about that. It’s when you pick another person in the room, and some people are laughing and some people are not, when you could find yourself in trouble. You may be getting some laughs, but you also may be doing more harm than good.

Peter McGraw zeroes in on the benefits that well-placed humor can have for workplace effectiveness. , Research also indicates that humor can play a positive role in individual mental and physical health as well. Where have you seen the benefits of jokes, comedy, and laughter in your day-to-day being outside of work? Who and what are the biggest sources of humor you interact with in your personal life and how have they had a positive influence on your well-being? Join us in the comments below with your thoughts and experiences.

To learn more about McGraw’s work, you can check out his research, read his book, or visit his website at http://www.petermcgraw.org/

Join Work and Life next Tuesday, June 10 at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Nancy Rothstein, The Sleep Ambassador who’ll be talking about sleep and the lack of sleep affects work, and Sarah Sutton Fell, Founder and CEO of FlexJobs and 1 Million for Work Flexibility.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Morgan Motzel Morgan Motzelis a rising undergraduate senior in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at Penn focusing on Management and Latin America.

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