- While waiting for meetings to begin. When the senior leader is running late from a previous meeting and everyone is milling about, don’t just ignore everyone with your head in your phone. It’s a great opportunity to build relationships and engage your fellow coworkers in conversation. Ask someone, “What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?” Even asking, “What’s new in your world?” will yield some great insights. Or ask for an opinion on an unrelated project on your plate.
- During presentations. As long as it has to do with your topic and makes a good point afterward, a joke or funny story lightens the mood and helps your audience members retain information longer. A friend of mine remembers well a presentation by an archeologist in a college class more than 20 years ago, when the instructor included some corrections for measurements of prehistoric stone spear points. One of them had been erroneously published as being over an inch thick. “Of course,” the teacher said, “that would be excessive for any prey animal…except maybe this one!” whereupon he displayed a slide of a rampaging Tyrannosaurus Rex. Everyone had a good laugh—and never forgot the presentation.
- As a creativity tool. One manager once had his team don Donald Duck glasses before a strategic planning session, as a symbolic way of focusing their vision and harnessing creativity. It let the more childlike sides of the team members emerge, got their creative motors running, and united them with a shot of humor. Using squeeze toys and colorful markers can bring out the playful, creative side in a serious matter, helping the team break through barriers.
- As a way to break down barriers between groups. When you get together and have fun with other departments and divisions, you’re less likely to see internal squabbling, data hoarding, bottlenecking, and other negative behaviors common to organizations. The Tennessee Valley Authority holds charity water balloon fights during work hours, and they hold dress-up days, encouraging the executives to come to work wearing costumes. One of my colleagues puts together game shows for corporate events, where senior leaders face off in trivia contests about company facts.
- To lighten the emotional tone of your group. Cheerfulness and lighthearted conversation can cool down a tense tone during difficult times and ease the flow of communication. Having a positive attitude costs you nothing, and it will usually engage the follow-the-leader effect. If you’re happy, your team will follow your lead as the role model and try their best to be happy as well. They may be laughing at your bad jokes out of kindness, but there are worse fates.
Humor should never exceed the bounds of taste or hurt anyone’s feelings. The best thing to joke about? Yourself. When you poke fun at yourself, people can laugh with you, and they won’t get defensive wondering if there’s an inside meaning to your “jokes.” Most people find laughter and overall good humor attractive in others. So try some humor—it might just help you lighten up and keep everyone else engaged as well.