THE EFFECTIVE USE OF HUMOR IN HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT

(L'UTILISATION EFFICACE DE L'HUMOUR COMME OUTIL DE DEVELOPPEMENT DES RESSOURCES HUMAINES)

 

By

 

(C) Azzedine Mezbache Ph.D.

 

Published in

 

The 1993 Annual: Developing Human

Resources, Pfeiffer & Company

 

David Kearns, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation, told this joke as he addressed students at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (Kushner, 1990):

 

There's a story about a Frenchman, Japanese and an American who face a firing squad. Each gets one last request. The Frenchman asks to hear "The Marseillaise." The Japanese asks to give a lecture on the art of management. The American says, "Shoot me first-I can't stand one more lecture on Japanese management." (p. 39).

 

 After the laughter subsided he added, "You'll be glad to hear I'm not going to talk about Japanese management today. In fact, if we keep on the right track, we may wind up listening to the Japanese give lectures on American manage­ment" (Kushner, 1990, p. 39).

 

Just as the message that David Kearns delivered was an important one, the messages that you deliver during the course of your work as a human resource development (HRD) practitioner-whether in formal speaking engagements, in training sessions, or in informal conversations with trainees or clients-are equally important. If your message is worthwhile but boring, the chances are that it will not be heard, understood, and remembered. Humor enlivens your message and helps listeners to relax and pay attention.

 

Gene Perret (1990), one of America's leading comedy writers, reinforces this point: Some people may wonder "why bother using humor when you can make a point as fiercely as possible and get on with it?" Marshall McLuhan answers with: "Those who draw the distinction between education and entertain­ment don't know the first thing about either." (p. 327)

 

THE BENEFITS OF USING HUMOR

 

"As I left home to come down here tonight, my wife gave me some last-minute advice. She said, "I know it's a difficult subject and a tough group. But don't be intimidated. And don't try to be charming, witty, or intellectual. Just be yourself." Mario Cuomo

 

By using and encouraging humor and fun, you can have the following positive effects on those with whom you communicate:

 

You show them that you are not afraid to let your guard down.

 

You convey that you are confident about their reactions to you.

 

You demonstrate that you trust them to value your spontaneity as much as, or more than, your stage persona as a speaker, trainer, or consultant.

 

 You reduce their anxiety so that they can better deal with the problems they are facing.

 

 You help them to gain perspective on their problems and to see those problems in a broader context.

 

Demonstrating a sense of humor decreases the distance between you and your listeners and increases their trust in you. Listeners tend to develop a quicker rapport with a speaker who encourages laughter than with one who is serious and stern. Also, listeners who laugh experience certain physiological and psychologi­cal reactions that not only benefit them but also benefit you as a speaker seeking receptivity: Their facial, torso, and stomach muscles relax; their blood pressure goes down; and a general sense of well-being and euphoria takes over.

 

Research on the psychology of humor shows that humor has a rejuvenating effect on listeners. Regardless of how accomplished a speaker is, listeners even­tually reach a saturation point at which they demand some refreshment or they will absorb no more. A little comedy can provide that refreshment, after which people can listen with renewed interest.

 

Often HRD practitioners resist the use of humor for one or both of the following reasons:

 

1. "I'm not here to win a popularity contest. " Because HRD professionals are more interested in getting the job done-in helping people to learn skills and solve problems, in helping organizations to become more effective, and so on-than in creating an atmosphere of fun and play, they sometimes think that creating such an atmosphere is not an important part of their work. This line of thinking is sometimes expressed in comments like "I'm not here to win a popularity contest. I'm here to work hard for my client." Certainly no one wants to serve a client with anything but the highest standards of competence, diligence, and creativity. However, there is a major difference between taking one's work seriously and taking oneself seriously.

 

2. "Having fun is childish.”Another reason that HRD professionals sometimes hesitate to use humor is that they associate play or fun with immaturity. Some seem to think that fun precludes learning, creates an atmosphere of laissez faire, and damages their credibility. In reality, injecting appropriate humor into a seminar or session may enhance one's image, alleviate boredom, and boost retention.

 

It is important to note that creating humor does not necessarily mean becoming an expert at telling jokes. It means saying things that make people feel at ease and relaxed. Having fun, generating laughter, and sharing that laughter tell people that you are glad to see them, that you are happy to be with them, and that you are enjoying yourself. Often it is humor that sets effective speakers apart and makes listeners remember them and recommend them to others. Those who can both educate and entertain-a rare quality in speakers today-earn high fees. And as an HRD professional, you should not hesitate to increase your fees over those of others if you can both generate learning and provide entertainment.

 

 THE LINK BETWEEN FUN AND EFFECTIVENESS

 

 “If you aren't having some fun, you might wonder just what you are doing in your business life.... If employees, customers, and vendors don't laugh and have a good time at your company, something is wrong. “ Paul Hawken

 

As Hawken implies in the preceding quote, there is a definite link between fun and effectiveness. The following paragraphs describe findings involving teachers, priests, managers, and organizations.

 

 Findings with Teachers and Priests

 

 When his congregation began nodding off, a preacher said, "Last night I held in my arms the wife of another man." That woke people up, and they looked at him startled. Then he added, "It was my dear mother."

 

 Findings with teachers

 

Teachers who used humor or created and/or allowed an atmosphere of fun and play were rated more favorably by their students (Abramis, 1991). Studies with priests (Holland, 1982) yielded similar results: Priests who used humor while delivering sermons were rated by those in attendance as "more likable" and "more effective" than were priests who did not use humor. Furthermore, church attendance was greater for the priests who used humor than it was for the priests who did not.

 

 Findings with Managers and Organizations

 

 “Just think, if Moses were alive today, God could have faxed the Ten Commandments to him.”

 

 One study with a control group and an experimental group of managers found that subordinates in the experimental condition-in which managers created and allowed a "funny" atmosphere at meetings-more frequently rated their managers as "likable" and "effective" than did those in the control groups whose managers did not create or allow fun and play (Chapman, 1986). In addition, David Abramis (1991) studied office fun and reported that roughly 60 percent of employees have fun at work and 10 percent say that they do so consistently.

 

 Furthermore, Abramis (1991), Duncan and Feisal (1989), and Kiechell (1983) reported an increase in creativity, productivity, motivation, and satisfaction among employees when enjoyment in the office was emphasized. A decrease in anxiety and depression was also noted. Abramis predicts that man­agers will increasingly be allowing fun in the workplace once they become convinced that it might help them to achieve organizational goals.

 

Organizations are beginning to realize that an environment that encour­ages fun and humor creates a relaxed atmosphere and enhances effectiveness. Consequently, many are hiring humor consultants to teach their managers to take themselves lightly. John Goodman, head of the Humor Institute in Saratoga Springs, New York, and the only full-time humor consultant in the United States, speaks to companies across the world on the use of humor in management and leadership. He reports that he has to turn down twenty lectures a month. That is how important humor is to some organizations; they know its power in motivating people and in boosting morale and productivity. In addition, some companies have recognized the importance of interrupting boring daily routines with enjoyment and have responded by creating "humor rooms" that are filled with mini-basketball hoops, funny props, and Candid Camera videos. Employees are encouraged to visit these rooms occasionally for some comic relief.

 

 HOW TO USE HUMOR EFFECTIVELY

 

Before you start using humor, first make sure your listeners understand that you are competent in your subject matter. You do this by briefly stating your qualifi­cations for the job that you are there to do.

 

 Caution 1. Never introduce yourself in a humorous manner unless your reputation has preceded you. If the listeners have never heard of you, introduce yourself in a serious manner so that they have a chance to get to know you and to become convinced that you can get the job done. A basic principle of audience psychology is audience resistance to humor: People tend to resist those who try to be funny. They need to hear your voice and to become acquainted with you before you attempt to make them laugh.

 

Caution 2: Never use humor to conceal a lack of preparation or inadequate knowledge of your subject matter. Humor is only the icing on the cake; it should complement and enhance your message, not replace it.

 

 After you have introduced yourself, you are free to use and encourage humor. Here are ten guidelines that you might find helpful:

 

 1. Make Fun of Yourself-Not Others

 

 When I told people I'm in software, they thought that meant women's lingerie.

 

 In any given audience, you will find "hostages"-people who were forced either directly or indirectly to attend. Using self-effacing humor gives "hostages" as well as others an incentive to pay attention and to become less bored. However, be aware that using humor to make fun of others is inappropriate and will alienate people.

 

 Self-effacing humor shows strength and confidence; it tells your listeners that you are secure enough to laugh at yourself. Charles Gruner, professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia in Athens, has studied humor and persuasion for more than twenty years. He reinforces the importance of self-effacing humor by saying, "A little self-deprecation humor shows that the speaker feels strongly enough to make fun of himself. It creates audience rapport" (Kushner, 1990, p. 79). The important phrase in this comment is "a little." Research shows that self-effacing humor is most effective when used sparingly (Kushner, 1990). Without it, you may appear stuffy; but if you use too much of it, you may cast yourself as a "Woody Allen" character, someone who is always putting himself or herself down. To be effective, you will have to strive for a happy medium.

 

 2. Laugh with People-Not at Them

 

 Be sensitive to people's feelings and needs. Never share a funny anecdote about a person known to you and the listeners unless you have previously received that person's permission to share it.

 

 3. Select Material That Relates to Your Topic or Your Listeners

 

 Keep in mind that you can tell a good story or joke badly, but you can rarely tell a bad story or joke well. Part of what determines whether your material is "good" or "bad" is its relevance to your topic and your audience. Use material that is suited to your topic or audience: stories about careers for a training session on career development, stories about management for an audience of managers, and so on.

 

 4. Believe in Your Material

 

 To tell a story or joke effectively, you must believe in its concept. You must "buy" the idea. Otherwise, you may subconsciously hold back.

 

 5. Deliver Your Material Well

 

 Musicians often say that many people can play the guitar but few play it well. The same is true of telling stories and jokes. Good delivery takes practice, practice, and more practice so that the material sounds spontaneous and conversational.

 

 6. Learn Techniques for Good Delivery

 

 Here are some tips for achieving good delivery:

 

 Know your lines.

 

 Be confident.

 

 Do not announce that you are going to tell a joke.

 

 Establish eye contact.

 

 Pause for the punch line and wait for the laugh.

 

 Keep it brief.

 

 7. Avoid Ethnic Put-Downs

 

 Jokes that disparage specific cultures are inappropriate. Some professional co­medians feel that you can tell an ethnic joke if you are of that ethnicity, but others disagree. This issue warrants careful judgment, especially in light of recent concern about sensitivity to cultural diversity.

 

 8. Avoid Sexist Put-Downs

 

 Although it has never been wise to disparage one sex or the other, it is especially inappropriate now, when the gender gap is widening because of sexual harass­ment. It is also unwise to belittle particular people in your audience, who will probably resent it. Humor should heal, not hurt.

 

 9. Give Listeners Permission to Laugh

 

 “In these times, a good time to laugh is any time you can.” Azzedine Mezbache

 

 Listeners typically model their behavior after that of the speaker: If the speaker is serious, they tend to be serious; if the speaker is entertaining, they tend to relax and have a good time. For this reason, it is important to give your listeners permission to laugh. You do this by laughing with them, reminding them of the difference between taking your work seriously and taking yourself lightly.

 

 In the five years that I have been a management consultant and a profes­sional stand-up comedian, I have spoken to a wide variety of audiences: Navy personnel, senior citizens, people who are hearing impaired, religious people, graduate and undergraduate students, and tough comedy-club customers. I have never encountered an audience that did not want to laugh. The reason is simple: There is a child in each and every one of us dying to have permission to laugh.

 

Try to involve your listeners actively in the fun; encourage them to relate funny anecdotes, personal experiences, and so on. Keep in mind that in any audience there are natural jokesters who like to draw attention to themselves and who can contribute to the overall atmosphere of fun. Allow them to do so as long as they do not upstage you or get out of hand.

 

 10. Use "Savers" If a Story or Joke Bombs

 

 A "saver" is a funny comment that is made after a story or joke does not receive the expected laughter. Even the most accomplished comedians tell stories and jokes that bomb once in a while. As one comedian put it, "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." Consequently, all comedians prepare savers to use when their material fails. Either you can compose your own savers to fit a particular situation, or you can use any of the following:

 

 'Well, I'm going to followin Saddam Hussein's footsteps and call that joke a victory."

 

 "That usually works ... with my wife (husband)."

 

 "You know what they say: 'He who laughs ...1asts. ",

 

 "Come on, people, that joke is a killer in Cleveland (substitute any other city)."

 

 "I should have a sign that says 'How am 1 dying? Call 555-1212.'''

 

 "That was one of those scud-missile jokes. You never know when it's going to hit."

 

 "What's the difference between a consultant and a pigeon? The pigeon can make a deposit on a new car."

 

 

 REFERENCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 Abramis, D. (1991, March 19). There is nothing wrong with a little fun. The San Diego Union, p.25.

 

 Carter,]. (1990). Stand-up comedy: The book. New York: Dell.

 

 Chapman, A (1986). Humor and laughter: Theory, research, and applications. New York: St. Martin's Press.

 

 Duncan, WJ., & Feisal, P. (1989). No laughing matter: Patterns of humor in the workplace.

 

 Organizational Dynamics, 17, 18 -30.

 

 Higginbotham, W. (1988). Mirth in management. Buffalo, NY: Beady Limited.

 

Holland, N.W. (1982). Laughing: A psychology of humor. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Kiechell, W. III. (1983, December 12). Executives ought to be funnier. Fortune Magazine,

 

Kushner, M. (1990). The light touch: How to use humor for business success. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 

Perret, G. (1984a). How to hold your audience with humor. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Perret, G. (1984b). How to write and sell your sense of humor. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall. Perret, G. (1990). Funny business: Speakers' treasury of business humor for all occasions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

 

 Robin Williams: The king of comedy. (1986,July 7). Newsweek, pp. 52-58. Saks, S. (1984). The craft of comedy writing. New York: St. Martin's Press.

 

 Shales, T .. (1989,July). Is comedy making a comeback? America laughs again. Esquire, pp. 118-129. Wilde, L. (1983). How the great comedy writers create laughter. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

 

Wolmuth, R. (1986,June). Inside comedy. Time, pp. 96-106.

 

 Pour plus d’informations 

 

DR. AZZEDINE MEZBACHE

Membre, SARPSY, Alger.

 

odean53@yahoo.com;

Président, Diversity Plus;

 Psychothérapeute;

Psychologue du travail/des Organisations.

 

+213 (0)6 62 91 38 40 (mobile)

+213 (0)6 59 45 49 20 (mobile)