Humor in the Workplace

With a title like this you might think I’m writing about the dangers of humor in the workplace – and humor in the workplace can be a bit fraught, but that’s not what this is about. Today’s newsletter topic is by special request and is really about getting me to tell a story on myself. It’s also true that the person requesting taught me something important about humor in the workplace. As I said to a colleague at Trinity University years ago when she commented that I wasn’t afraid to be a bit goofy on campus, “Sharon taught me years ago that goofy is good.”

The picture at the top is in honor of the ‘crab hats’ Sharon brought into the office one day. Sharon was Dean of Students at UT Austin and I worked with her and an amazing team of colleagues for more than a decade. I don’t remember where she got the foam crab-shaped hats. One might think Boston, but it might have been a bit much even for Sharon to carry-on three foam hats with foam arms and pincers extending about a foot on each side. Wherever she got them, she carried them into the office, hung them on a coat tree and announced they were for anyone to wear when they felt crabby. The hat could serve as a warning to anyone to give the wearer some space.

The only person I ever saw wear one was Sharon and she was having too much fun wearing it as she walked through the office for me to say she was warning us to stay away. Which may be the point of a crab hat anyway. Who could actually stay crabby while wearing one?

Humor is an important part of our work. I think that’s in part because we work with people and people simply do funny things. Ourselves included. One of the best compliments ever about a workplace I was part of came from Karl. Karl was a relatively new administrative assistant in our student conduct office. In an interesting turn of events, he had replaced his twin sister in the role. In a conduct office, the full range of human behavior is on display. One day, the four of us who worked downstairs in the ‘garden level’ (that’s a euphemism for basement in case you’ve never worked in the basement) were laughing about something and Karl commented, “Kristi told me this was a very professional office and I was afraid that meant it wasn’t much fun. I was wrong, y’all are both professional and fun.” He was right. We treated students and each other with great respect and sometimes we laughed at students’ behavior and other times we laughed at our own. Professionalism made it possible to keep a straight face while working with students who had done some very silly things – such as the two students caught rollerblading in a parking garage late one night, in the nude.

When we got a report headed, “man burning a dog” it was shocking. The reality was that an art professor was cremating his dog in a university kiln and holding a wake complete with wine for his graduate students. There was nothing to do but laugh, and turn the matter over to his dean to discuss rules about alcohol on campus and appropriate use of campus property.

But it’s one thing to laugh at other’s behavior. It can be quite another to laugh at oneself, but that ability to laugh at oneself is actually a critical leadership skill. Naomi Bagdonas, a management lecturer at Stanford put it well in her Ted Talk, “We can do serious things without taking ourselves too seriously.” Sharing a laugh creates positive connections with others and can work to build trust. It can take a while to learn to laugh at oneself, but it’s a critical component of effective leadership.

I certainly was not born with this ability. In seventh grade, I once wore two different shoes to school. I hoped to get through the day without anyone noticing, but I didn’t make it through the first class. Not only did someone notice, they laughed and made sure others laughed as well. I didn’t laugh. Between classes, I went to the pay phone calling my mother in tears, begging her to bring me a matching shoe. To her great credit, she left work, went to the house and brought me a shoe.

Of course, that was only the first time I’ve worn mismatched shoes to ‘school.’ My habit of buying duplicate pairs of shoes that are comfortable has resulted in multiple occasions of wearing shoes that match but are two different colors. Just recently, I walked from the closet through bathroom, bedroom and living room wondering why my shoes felt funny before I looked down and realized I was wearing a black and a navy shoe – both of them for my left foot.

And then there was the green dress. It was a hand-me down from my aunt, Kelly green, sheath style, with large black buttons running down the front. I put it on the first time I was going to wear it and asked my husband how it looked. He said it looked fine but (and I’ll put this delicately) my figure seemed flattened somewhat. I said okay, and left for work. I said ‘hi’ to a colleague as I dropped things in my office and hurried off to an 8:00 am meeting that included another office mate.

Sitting in the meeting, I reached up to see what was scratching my neck and realized there was a tag at my throat. I had the dress on backwards! After the meeting I scooted to the bathroom and switched the dress around. Those big black buttons went down the back and there were now darts in the front. I had a flashback to fourth grade when I’d done the exact same thing with a dress passed to me by a neighborhood family. This one had a long zipper with a large ring on the zip. It had seemed logical to me that the decorative item went in front. I didn’t yet know what it meant when the girl seated behind me asked why the darts were in the back of my dress.

That day on campus after getting dressed properly, I went to the office where the only two people on campus who had seen me wearing my dress backwards immediately asked, “weren’t those buttons in front?!” Luckily, I had learned to take myself a bit less seriously since seventh grade, and I could laugh with them. No one who knows that story has ever forgotten it or let me live it down.

I have told that story on myself before now because it is funny, but telling it has also been helpful in my leadership roles. Experiences like that, especially when we can laugh about them, help keep leaders humble. It’s hard to be too full of oneself when you know that you can’t tell the back from the front of the dress or that you can actually walk through the house before you figure out you are wearing two left shoes. Telling stories on myself has helped others see me more as a person and less as only the Vice President.

Being able to be a bit goofy is good for our souls and for our relationships at work. Being able to laugh together is a bonding experience. Being able to laugh at oneself keeps us human. And it all makes life and work, especially difficult work, a bit more fun.

What are the stories you tell on yourself? What ones might you decide to share someday because goofy really is good? Even at work.

Take care,


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