They Who Laugh, Last!
May, 1999
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

Using Humor to Boost Creativity

"Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something different." Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, M.D. (Nobel prize winner)

Last month, we discussed the growing conviction among upper management in many companies that doing things to make work fun can actually make employees more productive. And bringing your sense of humor to your job is an easy and effective way to make work fun.

One way to boost productivity is to increase the level of innovative thinking and creativity on the job. More creative employees will more quickly find their way to workable solutions to unique problems.

Creative thinking in the workplace is more important now than ever before. With the rapid pace of change that has been occurring throughout this decade, every company in the country has had to face up to the fact that the old solutions don't work any more. In fact, the problems themselves are often new.

This means that it is essential to have employees in your organization who are capable of "thinking outside the box," and coming up with innovative and effective solutions that your competitors have not thought of. In an ever-more-competitive global marketplace, you need all the creativity you can muster up to be successful.

There are three ways to increase the level of creativity within your company: 1) create a work environment conducive to more creative thinking, 2) hire more creative employees, and 3) find ways to build up the creative abilities of the employees you have. For maximum results, you can move in all three directions at the same time, and humor has an important contribution to make in each case.

Sometimes unplanned humor can help move toward a solution to tough problems. In the early 1990s, a few bottles of water from a well-known bottled water company were found to have benzene in them. This was a public relations disaster. In a meeting convened to determine how to minimize the damage and restore the public faith in the purity of the product, everyone was having a difficult time coming up with ideas on how to proceed. Suddenly, one of the managers jumped up and said, "I've got it! Let's just repackage it and sell it as gasoline!"

Everyone laughed, and the tension in the room was noticeably reduced. From that point on, the ideas began flowing and progress was made in choosing a path to re-stimulate sales of the product. While the solution offered was an absurd one, the laughter broke people out of the box and helped create a frame of mind that generated a lot of good ideas on how to proceed. [Actually, I made this example up, but it demonstrates nicely the way in which humor helps come up with solutions to difficult problems.]

There has been research since the 1950s documenting a close relationship between humor and creativity. People with a better sense of humor tend to be more creative. There is even evidence that you can boost scores on a standardized test of creativity by exposing people to humor or other conditions which establish a "playful atmosphere." So there is every reason to expect that you can generate more creative problem solving among your employees by allowing employees to have a good laugh on the job--assuming, of course, that laughter or a joke or other light remark is appropriate in the situation of the moment. In many cases, any form of humor at all would be inappropriate.

A survey conducted in the mid-1980s found that 84% of Vice Presidents and personnel directors interviewed in 100 of the largest corporations in the country felt that employees with a sense of humor are more effective on the job than people with little or no sense of humor. The organization conducting the survey concluded that "People with a sense of humor tend to be more creative, less rigid and more willing to consider and embrace new ideas and methods."

So hiring new people who show some evidence of good humor skills is one way of helping assure that a more creative individual is brought into your team. Providing the employees you already have with tools (like my 8-Step Humor Skills Training Program) to improve their humor skills will also boost the level of creative thinking within the team.

Another way is to create an environment that allows employees to feel comfortable in letting their playful side show up on the job from time to time. Companies like Southwest airlines, Ben and Jerry's ice cream and others are well known for their efforts along these lines. Next month, we'll look in detail at the kind of approaches companies have tried in putting humor and fun to work.

Ziv, A. Using humor to develop creative thinking. In P.E. McGhee (Ed.) Humor and Children's Development: A Guide to Practical Applications. New York: Haworth Press, 1989.

Twidale, H. Nowadays, being "old sourpuss" is no joke. Working Woman, March, 1986, p. 18.

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