He says humour has a vital place in the office, because laughter is what sets humans apart from other animals. “The human factor makes all the difference,” he says.
Having fun, and enjoying being at work are the keys to maintaining a winning business attitude, he says. Customer engagement, employee morale and personal branding all improve when workers are free to make light of their problems.
Visiting Singapore this year for HR Summit and the Singapore Institute of Management’s CEO breakfast, he is now taking that idea to an Asian audience. It’s an ambitious task, but one he says will reap big rewards for those companies able to make the cultural shift.
While many employers may feel this is a risky balance to try to achieve in the downturn, Friedman asserts humour is needed more than ever now. “Using humour in the workplace helps people recognise their – and each other’s – negativity,” he says. “People tend to become more self-absorbed in troubled times when they should be thinking about working together.”
Friedman has a point here. An increasing number of studies indicate that staff are feeling underappreciated and marginalised as the financial crisis forces managers to make numbers their priority. He reminds employers that they cannot try to restrict “enjoyment” to outside working hours, because employees spend the majority of their days among colleagues. Humour helps to develop relationships between staff; it breaks down barriers and decreases tension, leading to an increased sense of purpose in the organisation, he says.
What exactly does it take to infuse humour into a workplace? Friedman says it’s important to remember the purpose of this initiative before setting out to achieve it. “It’s about honouring self-expression and empowering people to be more creative,” he says.
Employers can lay the foundations for a more light-hearted atmosphere by doing more praising, recognising and celebrating. Sadly, in both Asia and the West, Friedman says it is far more common to see bosses reprimanding workers for mistakes and neglecting to reward good work. Conversely, celebrations help create a happy mood without upsetting work processes.
With a positive atmosphere established, there is room for what Friedman calls “humour rituals”.
These are different practices to emphasise fun in the workplace, something that becomes particularly useful in stressful times when staff need an outlet to complain. Friedman suggests creating a “whine zone”, a designated area where staff are free to grumble and vent frustrations. Any whining done outside this area incurs a small penalty – a contribution to a future staff party or event. “Call it a whine-and-cheese party,” Friedman quips.
He even suggests encouraging staff to sing their complaints. It sounds silly, but this is the purpose of the ritual, he explains. “We need to pay attention to our language and become creative with our negativity.”
High-level management should also be included in these rituals. In fact, their participation will set the tone for employees, and demonstrate that the workplace allows for some fun, Friedman says. “CEOs are often the ones being negative, and their attitude flows downhill to staff. If they are seen laughing at themselves, workers will quickly take the cue.”
Understandably, some leaders may be hesitant to laugh at themselves. Too much jesting can have its drawbacks. There is, after all, a fine line between becoming an object of self-ridicule, and losing the respect of employees. Friedman says it is up to the individual leader to remain evenhanded and ensure that humour – as welcome as it is – does not disrupt work, but rather enhances it.
Joking in Asia
Establishing humour rituals can reap many benefits for employers and staff alike, but cultural assumptions can complicate these efforts. In some Asian cultures, workplaces are just that – places where work is done. The thought of employees singing or junior executives fining their managers may seem disrespectful to that environment.
Friedman acknowledges this openly. Having traveled extensively with his message, he says he always reminds his audiences that comedy is culturally-based. “It is very possible that misunderstandings will arise,” he admits. However, if employers tailor the humour initiatives according to what feels right, and what makes sense, cultural clashes can be kept to a minimum.
Employers who can’t shake the notion that humour does not belong in the office might be more comfortable with storytelling. Friedman enjoys this approach because it is universal and inclusive while allowing people to catch a glimpse of each other’s lives. Of course, topics need to be selected with care. “Family is a great topic. But romance? You have to be careful about what’s appropriate to the culture,” says Friedman.
Storytelling achieves the same effect on employees: it opens them up, and allows them a chance to express themselves. The point is to take risks, and to give employees a chance to be vulnerable. Humour is not absolutely necessary, although it often gets injected naturally by the storyteller. As Friedman reminds employers, the best humour comes with authenticity.