The power of humour to change workplace culture

Michael Kerr describes how to escape ‘a soul-sucking, fun-sucking, Dilbert-like work environment,’ just as he did, and raise productivity

Michael Kerr is an international speaker and expert on humour in the workplace.

Michael Kerr: The power of humour to change workplace culture
Michael Kerr
When humour is injected into a workplace culture, employee turnover and absenteeism rates drop, productivity increases, stress levels drop, communication improves, and creativity and innovation thrive

Calgary’s Business: How and when did you get into this field of humour at work?

Kerr: I started Humour at Work 21 years ago, after working as a senior manager in a soul-sucking, fun-sucking, Dilbert-like work environment. I knew I had to do something different with my life and after seeing the impact of a dysfunctional workplace culture on people’s lives, I decided to make it my mission to research, write and speak about the critical role workplace culture plays, not just in creating happier, less stressful work environments (or as I put it, workplaces that ROCK), but also in driving outrageous success in any organization.

And because I was known for my humour and believed in the power of humour to make a significant difference in workplace cultures, I decided to use humour as the entry point for talking about workplace culture, leadership and business success.

CB: Why is it important to have humour in a workplace?

Kerr: There’s a chicken and egg relationship when it comes to humour at work: humour is both a driver of results and it’s the end result of working in a successful, productive workplace.

I’ve just returned from an International Society of Humor Studies conference in Estonia, where I met with senior leaders from several award-winning companies, and it’s amazing to see how different companies around the world use humour in different ways to drive success. Some use humour as a branding tool to help ‘humanize’ their image and make them more likable, while others embrace humour in their advertising, promotions and customer service to help them stand out from the herd.

And the research shows overwhelmingly that when humour is intentionally injected into a workplace culture, employee turnover and absenteeism rates drop, productivity increases, stress levels drop, communication improves, and creativity and innovation thrive. So, there are a myriad of benefits.

But what I stress to my clients is this: even if adding more humour into your workplace doesn’t help you achieve greater success in all these areas, what would you rather have – the same level of success and less fun and humour in your workplace, or the same level of success but with a more positive, enjoyable workplace culture?

CB: How can workplaces implement strategies to improve their culture and environment?

Kerr: The first step is to recognize that great workplace cultures don’t happen by accident. Every leader on the planet talks a good game about the importance of workplace culture, but few companies back up those words with meaningful action.

You need to be intentional about your workplace culture, which means hiring for a culture fit, training your new employees on your culture, and living your culture values in outrageously loud ways so they aren’t meaningless slogans that create cynicism amongst employees.

Companies need to always consider their culture when making decisions, getting into the habit of always asking the questions: How will this decision help create the kind of culture we want, and does it reflect the culture we want?

A few key things that businesses need to focus on to build a stronger culture:

  • Invest in training, especially leadership training focused on culture.
  • Get your meetings right. Meetings are the number one place to foster your culture and your meetings should reflect the culture you want. I’m a huge fan of short (five-to-10-minute) daily team huddles (no chairs or they become a meeting) to help build culture.
  • Communicate, communicate and communicate some more. You can’t have a great culture without investing relentlessly in your communication.
  • Reward and recognize employees – celebrating small wins and linking rewards and recognition to your culture goals is critical.
  • Create rituals and traditions to build culture. Every inspiring workplace I’ve studied around the world is a huge believer in the power of rituals and traditions – they create a sense of shared history and identity that strengthens culture, and they give employees something to look forward to and something to reminisce about.
  • Inject the fun everywhere you can, whether it’s by celebrating offbeat theme days, creating a humour library, opening meetings with a fun icebreaker, or giving out fun, wacky rewards, look for opportunities to inject some humour everywhere you can.

CB: Can you still have humour in a workplace that has managers who have the opposite personalities?

Kerr: Absolutely. I always stress that having a sense of humour at work isn’t about being an extrovert or the office clown. It’s not even about being funny in the traditional sense (although that can obviously help).

It’s about being more authentic, having a healthy sense of perspective, and being able to find the funny and laugh at the things you have no control over at work and, especially, it’s about learning to laugh at ourselves. Is it not a truism, after all, that the more seriously a person takes themselves, the less seriously we tend to take that person? This is triply so when it comes to being a manager.

We know from countless research that the highest rated and most effective leaders tend to also have a positive sense of humour. But again, when I’ve interviewed CEOs and presidents of companies known for their workplace humour, time and again these well-respected leaders aren’t necessarily gregarious, fun-loving extroverts, in fact many are introverts. Yet they still bring their own style of quiet humour to their leadership roles, and more importantly, make sure they don’t hide behind their natural tendencies as introverts as an excuse to not connect in meaningful ways with employees or get in the way of the natural humour that arises organically in any workplace.

CB: What are some examples of companies that you know that do this right and can you offer some examples of what they’re doing?

Kerr: Here are just a few of hundreds of examples from around the globe that I’ve featured in my last book, The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing All the Way to the Bank.

• Argus Industries, based in Winnipeg, is one of my favourite Canadian examples. Their motto is, “Work is hard enough as it is without making it any harder, so let’s work hard but let’s have fun while we work hard.” They celebrate fun theme days, hold contests, hold X Game competitions between the front office white collar employees and the factory blue collar employees, hold events for employees’ families and celebrate rituals and traditions to help build what they call a “Tribal Culture.”

One of their more offbeat traditions involves an employee hiding in the office and factory dressed in a giant gorilla costume, while another employee secretly videotapes the frightened reactions as co-worker after co-worker gets a fright. They then create a montage video of the reactions that they screen at their year-end party.

It may sound silly, but this is the kind of playful stuff that helps create a ‘want to’ instead of a ‘have to’ work environment, which is why Argus has had virtually no employee turnover during the last decade.

• Call centres are notorious for their less-than-ideal work environments, which is why in some markets their employee turnover rate exceeds 400 per cent. Yet Beryl Health, a health-care call centre based in Bedford, Texas, has an employee turnover rate of less than 15 per cent largely because they bring a lot of humour to their workplace.

They have a “laugh box” on the call centre floor, they hold chili cookout contests, their CEO (an introvert, by the way) does funny video messages to employees, they hold a regular employee Gong Show and “Dancing With the Executives” fundraising event, while their human resources manager has the job title, “The Queen of Fun and Laughter.” Their focus on culture has not only driven down employee turnover rates, they make five times the profits of their nearest competitor.

• AFA JCDecaux, an outdoor advertising company based in Copenhagen, Denmark, is another company that’s created spectacular business results with a re-energized focus on their culture and bringing the fun to work.

Sensing they were being too complacent with their success, a few years back they redefined their four core values, listing a “Spirit of Fun” as one of their central tenants. To make sure employees embraced their new values, they did a simple but effective exercise: For six months they cycled through each of the four values focusing on one value a week with a call to arms for all employees to live that value in outrageously out-loud ways.

Based on everything they could measure and employee satisfaction surveys, they transformed their company in less than a year. And that Spirit of Fun lives on. For example, they are known to call employees over the PA system for impromptu salsa dance lessons or ice cream sundae eating contests in the lunchroom.

The main message from all these companies is this: Don’t be afraid of humour. In fact, embrace it. Dare to be different. Be bold. Look for ways to leverage your humour resources to drive outrageous business results.

– Mario Toneguzzi


The power of humour to change workplace cultureThe views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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