Humor as the New Force of the Rebellion

If you can make them laugh, you might just be able to win them to your point of view. Let me set the scene. I’m the new man on the team – and it’s stacked full of power players. I’ve moved to the mothership office and we’re going through the list of company values because we had a forward thinking VP. He wanted to make sure what was happening in the halls matched what was on the walls. We’re all leaning in across the oak table discussing the finer points of the language, but not getting into anything meaty.

I feel the absence of conflict within the team. I’m talking about cognitive conflict here (not affective) – the kind of discourse that can lead to aligned thinking. The group is going through the motions even though I’m sensing some are keeping their vetoes in their pocket for later use. 

At heart, I’m a contrarian – even to myself sometimes. I like to wrestle ideas to the ground to make sure I can stand behind what we espouse.  I want these values to mean something. But I’m sensitive to the mood in the room and I spend a lot of time listening. There are 8 of us with mixed tenure, level, and background. I’m new and everyone is a little suspect. No one seems to be challenging each other. Everyone is making nice nice all over the place. I thought that maybe this is just how they do things here. 

And then they came to that one value that tipped things for me. We will seek to meet customer expectations. What kind of poor excuse for a value is that? The team seemed perfectly fine to gloss over this one – and I was inclined to let it go based on the mood. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t let the entire leadership team try to get the rest of the organization rallied around that flaccid sentence. 


So what’s so weak about it? Let’s break it down. First of all is the meet expectations. That’s begging for average. Maybe some of this is coming from my days in the military where “meets” ratings were reserved for the weak. I’ve never met someone I really connected with who was happy with a “meets expectations” rating at anything in their life. Not even on a skills challenge at a soccer camp. What about exceed? Or delight? Or any other number of things you can do with a cherry on top that means more than meets. What about over deliver? Eclipse? Surpass? Exceed? Transcend? Destroy? Where are the words that might lead to some goddamn energy?


And then there is that first phrase. Seek to. Talk about sad sacks trying not to suck. I had to go back to the ancient wisdom on this one. No, not Plato or Socrates…Yoda. Remember what he told Luke? Do or do not there is no try. Try is seek to’s ugly cousin. Not only do we merely want to meet their expectations, but we want to seek to meet? Lame.  

So I felt this incredible tension to interject. To get my point across in a way that didn’t knock them over. I needed to break the tension I felt without harming the unity of the group. Throughout my career, I had never really brought my full self to work. There was a whole side of me that I left at the door. I was sitting there in the tension remembering a few weeks back when my ex-wife saw me with an old college friend. She told me she had not heard me laugh like that in years. And that was the truth. What I left at the door for work was starting to be left at every door. I loved to laugh. I used to listen to stand-up comedy ALL THE TIME. I had dreams of doing stand-up.  But what happened to that?

Sensing my tension, the VP turned to me and said, "Mike...what do you think of this one?" I froze. I took a breath. I was blank. And then I opened my mouth, channeled my inner Yoda and let it fly in full impression mode.  Do or do not…there is no seek to.

They laughed. Hard. And the team opened up and started to really dig in. I was stunned.

We changed that value to something that mattered. And then we went back and changed some of the other ones. We had great discussion with lots of healthy conflict. It was powerful. As I sat down at my desk later I wondered what the hell had happened? Had I just impersonated a little green character in the middle of my 1st senior team meeting? Yup. I shuddered. But why the hell did it work? I wanted to know why the humor brought out the best in the team. My interest in humor at work was born.

So why does humor matter in our lives?

Humor’s a funny thing. But seriously, laughter and smiling have well researched benefits that are worth reviewing:

  • The use of humor in groups increases team cohesion and positive feelings towards team members.

  • When a leader uses humor, team members report the leader as having stronger leadership skills.

  • Humor helps generate more (and better) ideas.

  • They say that laughter is the best medicine. I’m not sure I’d trade stand up for the surgery I need, but there are studies that show humor relieves stress and even increases pain tolerance.

  • Executives who use humor effectively are paid more. Yes, you read that correctly.

  • And, if that’s not all, the use of certain types of humor with partners can positively predict relationship satisfaction.

A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs — jolted by every pebble in the road.
— Henry Ward Beecher

At work, we all leave part of ourselves at the door. But these benefits make me want to bring some humor through that door – as long as it fits. I like being around people that are funny and ready to laugh. Life’s too short to be serious all the time. 

But we have to be careful. There are times when and places where humor doesn’t fit. I’m sure you’ve found some of those on your own – I know I have. I’ve seen humor used to exert power over someone through teasing. I’ve also seen people poke fun at themselves too much and their team loses confidence in them. 

Why do People Laugh?

After a couple thousand years, you’d figure this question would have been answered. Well, not quite. There are distinctions between humor, laughter (a vocal expression), smiling (behavioral expression), and play. Even within laughter, there’s giggles and guffaws, pigeons and snorts, cruel and polite, nervous and suppressed, and gut-busting belly laughs. There’s also a social aspect to humor. You are more likely to laugh at something in a group than if you are on your own. And you can even “catch” laughter if it happens around you (emotional contagion). If you really do gown the rabbit hole, you find a labyrinth of possibilities. There is no one theory that captures all elements of humor, but these are the three well known humor theories and an emerging fourth – brought to you by the Humor Research Lab – or HuRL. Paraphrased notes follow:

  • Incongruity Theory – humor occurs when we instantaneously reconcile inconsistencies between things that can be perceived in different ways. My favorite example is the “run by fruiting” play on words from Mrs. Doubtfire. We laugh because we are instantaneously reconciling the act of throwing fruit to the phrasing and concept of a “drive by shooting”.

  • Superiority Theory – humor is, in a sense, a laugh of triumph where we take pleasure in other’s misfortune. I would argue that this theory is at play in all the whiffle bat to the balls clips from America’s Funniest Videos.

  • Relief Theory – humor involves a release of excessive energy where laughter operates a physical “vent stack” for built up energy. This theory is at play at times when laughter is repressed. George Carlin’s example of laughter when you are “kneeling in front of a casket” sums this one up pretty well.

  • Benign Violation Theory – humor occurs when norms are violated, but in a way that is perceived as benign. There is a sense of relief and pleasure when we recognize the violation at the same time as its benign nature. My PEN IS HUGE is a good example of a benign violation. The violation occurs when the PEN and the IS are put on the same line close together. It’s benign because there actually is space in between the letters. And because I’m talking about a pen. Honest.

Humor Styles

Some basic humor classifications can provide a roadmap for where and when humor fits and the right types to use in business settings. The first classification is based on the target of the humor – is the humor targeted towards self or others?  The second classification is based on whether you are using your humor powers as a Jedi or a Sith Lord – is the humor positive or negative?

The four styles of humor are:

  • Affiliative: this positive style is focused on sharing humor to bring people together through jokes about everyday observations or stories.

  • Self-Enhancing: this positive style occurs when an individual maintains a humorous outlook even when alone and often uses humor to cheer him or herself up or to deal with stress.

  • Aggressive: this negative style appears in put-down humor where there is a target for ridicule or offense. Avoid aggressive humor in most business contexts. However, when working in groups, a small amount of teasing – especially around group norms – can be positive. This style also includes a sub-style of humor directed towards rival groups (out-group) which can bring a group (in-group) together.

  • Self-Defeating: this negative style was made famous by Rodney Dangerfield (“I don’t get no respect”) and is based on putting yourself down. Self-deprecating humor – belittling or disparaging yourself – is a subset of self-defeating humor. The difference is in the frequency that you engage in this type of humor. Just enough and it can bring people closer to you. Too much is unhealthy and you can lose credibility with others.

Humor as a Craft

Some believe that humor is binary – you are either funny or not. I believe humor is a craft that can be learned and developed over time. This is based on personal experience and observation. I’ve seen people go from nervous presenters to sought-after speakers commanding big fees. Often it’s fear that holds us back. We worry about tossing a joke out only to have it fall flat. There are worse things in the world. If you can master a few strategies, good things can happen.You may not end up headlining at the Punchline, but through a bit of effort you can reap the benefits of the appropriate use of humor. 

If you can learn the humor of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.
— Edward Hall

Humor can be a gateway into the subconscious of a group or an individual. If you can harness the power of humor, you’ll be surprised at the positive outcomes you can achieve. If used properly, humor can help you lead, build teams, influence others, decrease stress, brainstorm, make more money, and woo new partners. Are you ready to make ‘em laugh?

Humor Tips

If you want to learn the craft of humor, there are a lot of options. You can take Improv classes or try some stand-up , you can read books, or just watch some funny speakers. If you want the shortcuts, here are a few tried and true tips:

  1. Learn a few jokes – This may seem trite, but most people enjoy the company of people who make them laugh. Find a couple non-offensive jokes, rehearse them, and bring them out in the downtime.

  2. Look for the rule of three – It’s a magic formula. Two things build an expectation and a third one turns. All you need to do is learn some jokes, look for the rule or three, and cry quietly if it doesn’t work.

  3. Be real – Life is interesting and funny things happen all the time. Be open about failures and challenges. Sometimes laughter comes from a humble, authentic moment when you poured coffee into the mug bottom.

  4. Laugh often – Laughter is contagious, so find ways to join in when something is funny. Sometimes the group can benefit if you are the first follower of someone making an effort to be funny.

  5. Embellish a little – We know the meeting wasn’t really 17 hours, but it’s funnier than 2. Don’t be afraid to add color to the details of your stories.

  6. Feel the mood – If the team’s getting a little tense, humor can help put things in perspective. When the heat rises, look for a way to vent the anxiety.

  7. Use body language – When you tell a story, bring it to life. Feel free to really “explore the space.”

  8. Find funnier words – I’m not sure why, but some words are funnier than others. Words with Ks are funny; weasels, ducks, chimps, and pop-tarts are funny. Look for words with hard consonants and use those.

  9. Be playful – Sometimes finding double meaning words (drawers, windows, ring, cool, board, etc.) can let your mind play. Don’t be so serious all the time. Look for ways to make people smile – smiles can be as effective as laughter.

  10. Tell some stories – Practice telling stories about your life or your work. Stretch out the story, tell some details, and get people interested in what happened. Don’t forget to use silence to build anticipation.

Persistence is a great substitute for talent.
— Steve Martin

Give some of these tips a try – keep at it and be persistent. Try one a week and see how many laughs you can get. Or watch a meeting and see how often people laugh. Identify the sender of the joke, the receiver, the subject, and the target. What made it funny?  We tend to improve what we pay attention to. So if you want to get funny – keep an ear tuned in to the funny.

Watch Outs

Keep a few watch-outs in mind if you are trying humor in a business setting:

  1. Know your audience – some leaders don’t like it playful and may consider it unprofessional to use a lot of humor. Silly doesn’t get promoted.

  2. Keep things positive – negative humor is usually a bad idea in most organizations. Stay away from put downs and too much self-defeating humor. Try to keep the target on a situation rather than on a specific person – even if they are in the room!

  3. Don’t forward joke emails – Nobody likes this. They may chuckle, but they hate you for sending another email. I know that memes are the new fad, but keep those things to twitter, or pinterest, or the trash can. See what I did there?

  4. Let others laugh first – you may think you are the comedian of the office, but don’t be the first to laugh at yourself. No one likes it when you laugh at your own jokes – it makes you look needy and lame.

  5. Think globally – Be mindful of different cultures. Sometimes words and hand gestures mean different things in other countries. Make sure you know the customs before you wink and give someone the A-OK.

These are some basic rules for humor at work. If you use your common sense and good judgement, you don’t need to be afraid to give it a try. 

May the 4th be with you

Since the Yoda outburst, I have been fascinated by how humor works at work. I’ve taken Improv classes and my speaking has dramatically improved. I’ve used humor when things get stressful and have been able to bring teams together. I’ve even tried a little stand up…once. That was enough. I think I’ll stick to making people laugh within organizations. I did have one good joke though. It wasn’t one I had written, but it was in the moment. Sometimes that when the funniest things happen.

Brick Wall.jpg

I was in the back part of a Chinese restaurant right around my 30th birthday. I had written some jokes and was going to give it a try. The back of the restaurant had a little corner with part of a curtain. No microphone, no stool, no brick wall. I got up and did my "set" - something about the stress a guy who is less than mechanical feels when talking to mechanic about a noise the car is making. There were a few laughs here and there, but nothing big. Then the owner walked in front of me. About 2 steps from me was a closet. He reached in, pulled out two rolls of toilet paper, and walked in front of me again. I was quiet for a second and looked out at all the young aspiring comics. I had a moment of humility and presence. I smiled and said, “I guess you really do start at the bottom.” 

Big laughs. It was a good feeling. You’ll love it. Go out and get some of that feeling wherever you can – at home, at work, ______________. 

You fill in the rest.

If you found this post valuable, please share it so others can benefit. If you’d like to find the funny at work, shoot me a note @

- Mike Sweeney, 


I won’t send you down the trail too far, but here are a few of my favorites.