Life is funny, the saying goes. And when it isn't funny, sometimes a sense of humor is what gets us through the tough periods.
Humor plays a special role at work. As critical as it is to take your work seriously, it is equally important to NOT take yourself too seriously.
Many years ago, a Fortune Magazine article talked about how executives should be funnier. I remember it well, because one of my biggest pet peeves is people who cannot laugh at themselves. The wonderful example the magazine used involved auto executive Eugene Cafiero.
When he was president of Chrysler, Cafiero went to England to meet with troubled employees at the company's plant there. Conflict between management and union employees was tense. As Cafiero entered the plant he was confronted by a man who loudly said, "I'm Eddie McClusky, and I'm a communist."
The composed Chrysler executive extended his hand and replied, "How do you do? I'm Eugene Cafiero, and I'm a Presbyterian." The subsequent laughter squelched this potentially explosive confrontation.
"A sense of humor is the one thing no one will admit not having," said Mark Twain. A good sense of humor helps to overlook the unbecoming, understand the unconventional, tolerate the unpleasant, overcome the unexpected and outlast the unbearable.
I like to say if you can't take a joke, then you'll have to take the medicine. That can be a bitter pill to swallow.
Think about the co-workers who you most enjoy working with: They typically have a good perspective on the importance of specific projects, get work finished on time, offer help when it's crunch time, and keep a smile on their faces through it all. And they often manage to put a smile on your face too.
Humor can make unpleasant tasks more palatable. It can defuse difficult situations and improve already good relations.
I have a friend in a business that you would usually not associate with humor -- he's a funeral director. He doesn't joke around about the seriousness of his work, but he does encourage his clients to allow themselves to laugh and share humorous memories about their loved ones. He says it helps break the tension and brings comfort to a trying situation.
There is plenty of evidence to support the benefits of humor at work. In a new study, researchers from Harvard's Business School found that cracking jokes at work shows your employer an increased perception of confidence and competence.
The study shows that the most effective joke-tellers are more likely to be chosen as group leaders. Just make sure the jokes in the office are appropriate. Researchers found inappropriate jokes lead to a perception of low competence. In other words, avoid locker-room banter and personal insults. Those are never funny anyway.
The most difficult part of using humor at work is knowing where to draw the line. You can joke with a customer, but never about a customer. You can tease your co-workers, or even your boss, but when it gets personal or hurtful, you are in dangerous territory. Refer to the Golden Rule if you are wondering if your remarks are appropriate: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you have to ask someone, you already have your answer. No joke is funny if you are the only one laughing.
Here's a great take on how one company used humor, as an April Fools' joke, to deal with requests for taking a day off:
-- There are 365 days per year available for work.
-- There are 52 weeks per year in which you already have two days off per week, leaving 261 days available for work.
-- Since you spend 16 hours each day away from work, you have used up 170 days, leaving only 91 days available.
-- You spend 30 minutes each day on coffee breaks; that accounts for 23 days each year, leaving only 68 days available.
-- With a one-hour lunch period each day, you have used up another 46 days, leaving only 22 days available for work.
-- You normally spend two days per year on sick leave. This leaves you only 20 days available for work.
-- We offer five holidays per year, so your available working time is down to 15 days.
-- We generously give you 14 days of vacation per year which leaves one day available for work and no way are you going to take it.
Mackay's Moral: Humor is more than funny business.
(Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive." He can be reached through his website, www.harveymackay.com, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.)