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Interview With Chris Robert

September 20, 2013 Leave a comment

EscapeLG

INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS ROBERT
(reprinted from Business Week)

Do you have a cranky boss? Some bosses act as though they’re allergic to humor, bristling when employees joke around in the office and fretting over the line between humor and harassment. But Chris Robert, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business, says joking around on the job can actually have a positive effect on productivity and employee retention. Robert, whose findings have been published as a chapter in a recent edition of the journal Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, spoke about his findings to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Why did you decide to do an academic study on workplace humor?

I’ve always appreciated how humor is an important part of the day-to-day work life, and I’ve always been interested and intrigued by how humor works. I’ve also done research on the subject of cross-cultural management styles and noticed how some humor works well in our culture, but not in other places.

Have you found that humor is definitely culturally specific?

Sure, somewhat. But on the other hand you typically hear things like, “Don’t use humor in international business settings, it’ll fall flat or you’ll offend someone.” But my experience is that that’s not the worst thing in the world. And the upside is really positive: Almost nothing makes you more comfortable than sharing a laugh about something universal, like kids. So sometimes humor works exceedingly well across cultures to make people feel better about each other and about doing business together.

I approached the topic of humor initially from the cross-cultural angle, but then I decided to survey the literature and found that there wasn’t much out there in terms of empirical work on humor. There are lots of armchair theorizers, but not many good studies. So a business doctoral student, Wan Yan, and I looked at the fields of anthropology, communications, and sociology to see what might inform what we’d expect to see in business organizations.

And what did you find?

We found pretty good theory and evidence suggesting that humor at the individual level is important. The use of humor, and the ability to produce and make humor, is associated with intelligence and creativity, two things highly valued in workplaces. More important, the link between humor and positive emotions seems strong, which is intuitive, and there’s also a strong correlation between positive emotions and workplace performance.

So are you saying that a funny employee can help promote a happy, productive workplace?

No one has really studied humor as an important part of employee performance directly, but we do know that positive affect in the workplace increases individual performance. And humor is one of the things associated with a positive affect, which increases not only productivity, but also the ability to communicate well with the boss, co-workers, and customers. It also enhances the degree to which you feel bonded, cohesive, and part of the group in the workplace.

That’s where employee retention comes into it. If you have positive emotions about your job, you’re less likely to quit. And maybe part of that is because of the fun you’re having in the break room. You might get a better job offer, but it will take more to draw you away when you like where you work and you like the people you work with.

It seems as if we often get negative reactions to humor from those armchair theorizers or from the legal perspective. Why do you think that is?

Humor enables people to make comments that they might not otherwise make. If you can wrap something up in humor and say, “Oh, I’m just kidding around,” you might be able to say something offensive that you wouldn’t say without the humor. So I think often people blame humor in general when someone’s making an offensive comment within humor. I think of humor as the medium, not the message. If someone makes a sexually charged comment, but they use humor to do it, should we blame humor or should we blame the person’s intentions? We don’t want to shoot the messenger.

In the same sense, doesn’t humor also give employees the freedom to criticize or complain about their jobs?

Sure. If the business owner or manager is someone who doesn’t respond well to direct challenges from employees, they might find a way to criticize indirectly with humor. In that case, I’d advise the business owner to take the message seriously. The person making the joke might be challenging you, which could be a problem, or you might be getting a subtle communication from one employee that other employees also feel. If an employee makes a joke about a supervisor, other people probably agree with that joke. Humor producers know that other people are listening to their joke and they’re more likely to make it if they think the others will appreciate it.

In that sense, humor can be used effectively by the business owner to understand how employees are thinking. It could create an opportunity for you to address a complaint or criticism that you wouldn’t hear about otherwise.

How did your study find that humor relates to workplace creativity?

The primary theory about humor, which is well accepted, is that it stems from incongruity. In other words, we find jokes or comments funny because they are linking two things together—perhaps through a punch line—that you wouldn’t normally link together, or that shouldn’t go together. Essentially, that’s what creativity is, too: Putting things together in a unique way, like using the Internet for something people wouldn’t have thought of before.

It’s likely that some of the same neural processes enable both humor and creativity, so those two things kind of go hand in hand. A number of studies show that a funny person is also likely to be a very creative person.

How do your findings translate to the hiring decisions that small business owners have to make?

That’s an interesting issue, and in fact we’re working on a paper about that right now. Should you select the funny guy for a job? I don’t necessarily think you want to select the class clown, someone who’s constantly joking and has to be the center of attention all the time. That could be too much for a workplace, it could get distracting for the other employees, and any boss would probably have valid worries about that kind of person. But if you can get some more subtle indicators in an interview that someone has a good sense of humor—say, they appreciate humor or they find things funny—that might be someone you want to have around. The other thing is that humor is viral. When someone’s laughing, it’s kind of contagious and it can spread a positive general benefit to the workplace.

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A Dream Team

August 29, 2013 Leave a comment

A friend of mine, Tom Daly, gave a seminar on teamwork in which he asked us to facilitate a fun and revealing exercise. He took me and seven other volunteers from the group to the back of the room and instructed us: “When I say, `GO!’ I want one leader to stand in the middle, and the rest of you to lock arms with each other in any way you choose around the leader. Then, in collaboration with the leader, you’re going to move this small folding table with the tray on top (and a coffee mug on top of that) from one corner of the room to another.” I immediately had a vision of how it could be done quickly, and when Tom asked us how much time we needed, I said we could do it in two minutes.

When Tom gave the signal to proceed, I jumped in the middle and asked everyone to lock arms and face me, except for the person closest to the table, whom I had turn and face away from the circle but still locking arms with the rest of us. He asked me if one person could pull the whole table and I said, “Yes, absolutely! You can do it.” With little time for processing, I had to be assertive and think fast to get the job done in two minutes.

We proceeded to move en masse toward our goal. Everyone else was laughing as we shuffled across the room and down the aisle, with the guy hauling the table bringing up the rear. Then an obstacle showed up in the form of an overturned chair in our path. Before I could give an instruction, the person at the front of the circle kicked the chair aside. “Good job, macho man!” I shouted, which provoked more laughter from the rest of the room. We reached the corner of the room and I told the team to rotate so that the person with the table would be facing the corner. Then he set the table in place, and the task was finished in a minute and twenty seconds.

This humorous exercise was a great learning experience for all of us. Tom asked me my thoughts about leading the group. I replied that I probably would not have led if not for the clear vision I had for getting it done simply and quickly.

Each person on the team gave their viewpoint from the questions Tom asked of them: Did they feel like an integral part of the team, even though they had no verbal input? One person suggested it was easier to yield to the strategy given by the leader and work with a team of strangers than among her co-workers (perhaps knowing their flaws all too well and the personality dynamics between them). Were any of them tempted to dispute the leader’s strategy? A few were, but said they ceded to the leader due to time limitations. Was it fun? Unanimously, a good time was had by all!

Excerpt from the book, “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Lighten Up!”

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Airing It Out

August 15, 2013 Leave a comment

flightinformation

Let this funny airline complaint letter be a reminder of how customer service is the life blood of any business…

Dear LIAT (AIRLINE),

May I say how considerate it is of you to enable your passengers such an in-depth and thorough tour of the Caribbean. Most other airlines I have traveled on would simply wish to take me from point A to B in a hurry. I was intrigued that we were allowed to stop at not a lowly one or two but a magnificent six airports yesterday. And who wants to fly on the same airplane the entire time? We got to change and refuel every step of the way!

I particularly enjoyed sampling the security scanners at each and every airport. I find it preposterous that people imagine them all to be the same. And as for being patted down by a variety of islanders, well, I feel as if I’ve been hugged by most of the Caribbean already. I also found it unique that this was all done on “island time,” because I do like to have time to absorb the atmosphere of the various departure lounges. As for our arrival, well, who wants to have to take a ferry at the end of all that flying anyway? I’m glad the boat was long gone by the time we arrived into Tortola last night — and that all those noisy bars and restaurants were closed.

So thank you, LIAT. I now truly understand why you are “The Caribbean Airline.”

P.S. Keep the bag. I never liked it anyway.

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CRACKING DOWN ON “CHINGLISH”

July 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Chinese sign

Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, organizers promised to crack down on awkward, Chinese-inflected English, known as “Chinglish,” and asked the public to help police bad grammar and faulty sign translation. With 500,000 foreigners expected for the Olympics, taxi drivers who can’t speak English — or signs that mangle the language — it could be an embarrassment and distract from the $40 billion being poured into rebuilding the city for the games.

Throughout Beijing, examples abounded:
A store selling tobacco products advertises: “An Excellent Winding Smoke.”
On the floor at Beijing’s Capital Airport, a sign reads: “Careful Landslip Attention Security.”
On a billboard, this mysterious message: “Shangri-La is in you mind, but your Buffalo is not.”
In an elevator, parents are warned: “Please lead your child to tare the life.”

Despite the problems, a government official said one-third of Beijing’s 15 million residents speak some English, a claim that was challenged by a local reporter from China’s state-run CCTV. “I think 5 million is a big number,” the reporter told the official. The official stood by the figure, but conceded the vast majority of the English speakers fell into a category he labeled “low level.” “They can have very simply conversations, like: ‘Who am I? Where am I going?’”

Efforts continue today to improve signage in English around Beijing’s tourist attractions.

Replacing Frustration With Fun

June 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Several years ago I was hired to lift the morale of bank tellers at a savings & loan. They were having a difficult time dealing with rude customers, and looked like a group of doleful-eyed, droopy-eared Beagles in need of a nourishing bowl of food. I told them there is nothing they could do about their customers’ attitudes until they shifted their own attitude from one of frustration to fun. Like Beagles that just heard an eerie sound, their heads collectively turned sideways.

At the end of their workday on a Friday, I asked them to gather around in a circle and reveal their worst customer of the week experience to the branch managers and me. There were loud howls of laughter in the room! The managers and I then conferred a reward to the teller with the best “Worst Customer of the Week” story: A customer apparently took out a can of underarm deodorant from her handbag and sprayed the teller’s window, screaming, “This place stinks!” The reward was a gift certificate to a fine restaurant. The following Friday, it was a bottle of champagne (which proved to be quite popular).

The tellers felt supported for enduring difficult customer situations, and morale skyrocketed. Now they were seeking out the rude customers: “Excuse me, sir, you look like you may be having a tough day…come forward. I’ll help you out.” With this unexpected response, rude customers suddenly became more civil. The good will snowballed as customers were telling their family, friends and work associates about the unusual attentiveness they were receiving at their bank. As a result, the bank had a surprising jump in new customers. It was a win-win-win situation. Can you adopt this approach of rewarding someone for enduring a difficult work experience at your weekly staff meetings?

Excerpt from “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Lighten Up!
c 2013 Terry Braverman
Mental Floss Publications
All Rights Reserved

How to Recede in Business Without Really Trying

May 16, 2013 1 comment

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Imagine for a moment you’re a contestant on a business game show version of Jeopardy. Here’s the answer(s):

Loss of potential customers;
Loss of management morale;
Loss of media outlet support

Question: What happens if a company’s Board of Directors refuses to honor an agreement made by management?

Such was the incredulous situation while planning an itinerary for a trip a few years ago. I initiated contact with a very elegant hotel property, via e-mail. The offer I made was to promote them in my publication called The Replenisher, in exchange for accommodations. Included in the e-mail text was a link to the web page showing our publication background and subscriber demographics.

Hotel management accepted the offer in writing (e-mail); in effect, a simple contractual agreement with all the pertinent details.

One week after the fact, an e-mail came from the hotel stating that the Board of Directors decided this was not a good demographic fit (actually, it was more the publication format they objected to), and they were retracting their abidance to the agreement. Let me add, there was no mention by management of this agreement being subject to Board approval.

I wrote a letter to one of the owners, asking them to reconsider: “An offer was made in writing, it was accepted in writing. That’s a contract…someone failed to review our web page before accepting the offer…I invite the hotel to consider a change of heart in this matter, and honor the agreement already made in good faith.”

There was no response.

Clearly, the hotel fumbled an opportunity for good will and positive publicity if they had admitted their negligence, and honored the agreement anyway. Needless to say, the hotel will not be invited back as a contestant on our “show” for any bonus rounds.

Lose Your Mind, and/or Regain Your Perspective?

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When we’re being held hostage by our own thoughts of fear, uncertainty, upsets, anger, or depression, “losing your mind” (figuratively speaking) is the pick that can often break the ice. That non-supportive noise between our ears can vanish in the face of bold, outrageous, unconventional, or even silly action-taking.

Recently I had a frustrating experience with a supplier, and rather than yell at them on the phone, I opted to sing my complaint to the customer service rep in an operatic voice. When I finished, she laughed hysterically and said, “Hold on, I want my supervisor to hear this.” So I sang again and we were all laughing hysterically. They even gave me free shipping for the next two orders!

When feeling stuck, break with the norm and observe how more alive and resourceful you become.

Excerpt from the best selling book, “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Lighten Up!”
© 2013 Mental Floss Publications
All Rights Reserved