|They Who Laugh,
Paul E. McGhee, PhD
Team Building II
A woman was promoted to a managerial position, giving her a position superior to that of former members of her team. Knowing that this would create conflict with team members, she called a meeting to deal with the transition. She said, "Don't think of me as your boss. Just think of me as a friend--a friend who's always right!"
Last month, we discussed the power of humor to promote a team spirit and identity. In this article, we'll focus on the specific ways in which shared positive humor facilitates team building and team performance. (We will see in a future article how negative humor interferes with team functioning.)
1) Removal of Barriers that Separate Management from Other Employees
There are certain barriers that naturally exist between managers and non-management members of the team-- the most important of which is power and authority. When managers show that they can laugh with everyone else in the group, and--especially--can poke fun at themselves, the barriers come down, and the manager is viewed as a "regular person," like everyone else on the team. This is essential to open communication between bosses and their subordinates (see below).
Research has shown that when the manager initiates jokes and is also occasionally the target of jokes, s/he tends to be viewed as a friend, rather than a boss.1 This friendship, in turn, opens up comfortable and honest communication. The individuals conducting this research argue that the increased group cohesiveness that results from shared humor does result in increased team productivity, but only when performance norms are high. Since performance norms have continued to rise over the past decade, virtually all employees are now confronted with such high performance norms.
2) Emotional Bonding
As noted above, shared laughter and the spirit of fun generates a bonding process in which people feel closer together--especially when laughing in the midst of adversity. This emotional glue enables team members to stick together on the tough days, when members of the team need each other to complete a project and assure quality customer service.
3) Open Communication.
A common complaint in many organizations is a lack of good communication with management. A lighter atmosphere, and a manager who shares humor with the team, is a powerful tool in opening up the channels of communication. It frees team members up to communicate openly, without fear of reprisal. This is especially important when an employee knows that his/her opinion differs from that of management.
One of the by-products shared laughter and good open communication is a growing sense of trust. This is also, of course, partly a result of the emotional bonding that occurs through shared positive humor. When comfortable and open communication is lacking, it breeds a sense of distrust, and there is no way that a team can function effectively when this occurs. Without trust, communications can quickly become defensive or distorted, setting up future misunderstandings.
5) Improved Morale.
When teams have fun on the job and share laughter, they enjoy their work more. And people who like their jobs work more effectively together. This is an especially important benefit of humor on the job, since employee morale has been dropping in many companies in recent years.
6) Reduced Job Stress.
Earlier articles in this newsletter have documented humor's power in helping employees manage job stress. By reducing daily stress levels, humor and a lighter attitude help sustain the focused mental state required to do one's work effectively when under pressure; it allows you to get a lot done and get it done quickly. It gives employees the emotional flexibility required to bend without breaking.
Also, as anyone who's ever worked on a team knows, even when it's only a few team members who are experiencing stress, their emotional state can quickly spread to other team members, interfering with the entire team's performance. The greater the percentage of team members who receive the stress-reducing effects of humor, the greater the team's chances of success on a project.
7) Increased Creativity.
As noted in the May issue of They Who Laugh, Last, humor is a natural stimulus for creativity. It opens up new ways of viewing things, and stimulates innovative ideas for solutions to difficult problems. This effect is especially important in team settings, where the ideas of one person can serve to trigger novel ideas for resolving problems in someone else.
As noted above, a lighter atmosphere reduces fear of rejection of one's ideas, making team members more willing to take risks in proposing unusual ideas. Also when your own ideas are not adopted, a sense of humor helps "let go" of the upset we all occasionally feel when someone else's ideas are judged more valuable that our own. This frees you up to work more effectively with the ideas the team puts up on the table.
So you have every reason to Lighten Up! Teams that Laugh, work!
1. Duncan, W.J. & Feisal, J.P. No laughing matter: Patterns of humor in the workplace. Organizational Dynamics, 1989, 17, 18-30.