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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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Bending Rules for Better Results

September 5, 2013 Leave a comment

“Most managers,” said futurist Alvin Toffler, “were trained to be the thing they most despise…bureaucrats.” Bureaucratic workplace rules, policies and red tape are a major frustration, both for the manager who has to enforce them, and for the employees who have to endure them. Employees often cite baffling workplace rules as an impediment to getting their work done efficiently. Some workplace rules are essential to deal with important considerations such as safety. But arbitrary edicts for every aspect of office life act as handcuffs, limiting people’s ability to achieve the best results.

In the book Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules For Smart Results, authors Bill Jensen and Josh Klein show how today’s top performers are taking matters into their own hands to circumvent all sorts of rules just to get their work done. These are dubbed benevolent hackers who find ways to get around stupid rules to get smarter results. The authors cite an example of employees frustrated because their boss insists that all presentations be delivered in PowerPoint. But collaborating with others on PowerPoint slides took forever to upload (and download) files on the company’s Microsoft SharePoint servers.

Breaking the rules by surreptitiously using Google Documents for the collaborative work, and saving to PowerPoint at the last minute, saved hours of frustration and helped these employees accomplish more. Another example cited is of an employee who was tired of spending six to eight hours a month doing his expense reports according to his employer’s cumbersome forms. He now uses Mint.com to create a one-pager of his expenses and even uses Salesreceiptstore.com to order duplicate sets of receipts to match his expenses so he doesn’t have to carry pockets full of receipts.

What these two examples teach business executives is that there’s an urgent need to keep up with the rapidly changing work environment, not only in terms of how people work today, but also what tools are available out there. The authors state that “the tools we have outside of work are leapfrogging past what we use on the job.” Preventing employees from using these tools makes their life needlessly more difficult. And many will find a way to work around firewalls and use them anyway because these tools allow them to work more efficiently.

Reprinted portion of article by Bruna Martinuzzi, founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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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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Morale of the Story

August 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Historically, incentive programs and meetings have been the early victims of economic downturns. In the current economy it has impacted the industry; there are reports of cancellations, delayed plans, and general cutbacks. With that as background, it is wise to restate the need for continued use of incentives and meetings, even if on a somewhat contained basis.

Some managers react to these situations by immediately cutting all “unnecessary” expenses without looking at overall consequences. “Unnecessary” becomes a very subjective evaluation. Others assess the value of each program before deciding the reasonable course of action.

There are now many studies that show a very definite relationship between motivation, the work environment, and bottom line profits. Satisfied workers produce at a higher, more efficient rate. The management dictum that employees are satisfied just to have a job in difficult times has long been refuted. Keeping employees and customers satisfied especially in difficult times is the basis of reaping healthy profits.

Keeping your employees engaged and giving them the feeling of being part of the team and appreciated will help them with the mental stress and will improve their outlook. An employee with a positive attitude is just as contagious in improving morale in the workplace as a disgruntled employee is in destroying morale.

In the book, “Contented Cows Give Better Milk”, the authors compared business results of companies considered employers of choice with a comparable group of Fortune 500 companies. (An employer of choice is a company that is primarily people-driven.) Although the Employers of Choice had about 1/3 of the revenue of the others at the start of the study, over a 10-year period (one that included a recession), they:

 Outperformed the latter about four to one in revenues;
 Increased net income 202% vs. 139%;
 Roughly doubled the net income of the latter group;
 Added 79,000 jobs while the latter LOST 61,000 jobs

The point: simply that a motivated, committed work force — one that continues to be recognized by incentive programs that reward excellent performance — continues to achieve growth while others stagnate.

Using these programs correctly is a competitive advantage, especially under difficult economic conditions. Measuring the success of incentive programs and meetings – whether return on investment (ROI) or return on objectives (ROO) or anything else – is the best way to show the value. Measurement as a tool for planners and business leaders is essential at all times. It addresses requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the need to demonstrate results to management, and, often, the justification for one’s job.

Both incentive suppliers and corporate planners say that they are increasingly asked for data related to measuring program results. ROI analysis also helps a company evaluate the impact of an incentive program across the entire operation, something that is crucial to avoiding long-term problems.

According to the MPI Foundation, “…ROI is THE single most important tool for a meeting professional. In today’s economy, with more and more meeting professionals answering to their Procurement office, the emphasis on ROI has never been more important.”

Employee incentive programs reward exceptional employees for reaching work goals, achieving milestones or simply doing a good job. These types of programs are designed to offer incentive and motivation in employees and increase the overall performance of the company. An incentive program is a great way to show employees that you value their input while at the same time boosting your business potential.

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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.

NOTE TO ALL READERS: This blog is making a transition to a new home here By next month the transition will be complete and this blog will no longer be at the WordPress address. Thanks for your continued attention and support!

What is S.D.S.?

August 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Juggling Life

Consider this an “unrestraining order” from the court of Terry Braverman: Today we are all afflicted to some degree with S.D.S. (Spontaneity Deficiency Syndrome). It is appalling in our society how much we miss enlivening opportunities by censoring our own spontaneity. “Well, I’m trying to find time to be spontaneous,” a harried business acquaintance once muttered. Indigenous tribal people tend to release their pent-up emotions through singing, dancing, chanting, and wearing wild costumes. How many of us would feel comfortable doing that in front of our families?

We have largely suppressed or forgotten spontaneity in the maze of our busyness, our plans, our rational thinking, and our control mechanisms. S.D.S. is a major cause of stress in our world. When we are in a lot of physical pain it takes some strong medicine to get relief. If the pain is emotional, we often need a strong jolt to regain our perspective. A dose of silly nonsense may just do the trick.

One time I was on the phone with a rep from a customer service department to lodge a complaint. My frustration was growing and I decided to vent by singing my complaint in an operatic voice. The rep was laughing hysterically and said, “Wait, I’m putting my supervisor on the line!” I continued to sing and the supervisor resolved my issue immediately in the spirit of fun established, as opposed to tension and conflict.

I cringe when I see people being scolded for acting too silly. Of course there are situations that demand an overall serious tone, but more often than not it’s the “grow up and get serious” parental mentality at work, stifling the natural stress relief of playful expression. It will amaze you to know that the word silly comes from the Old English word saelig, which was a blessing. It meant “to be happy, prosperous and wise.” On the other hand, adult comes from the word adulterate, meaning “to corrupt, debase, or make impure.”

Some claim variety to be the spice of life…I say it’s spontaneity.

“Excuse Me” Therapy

June 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Are negative patterns of behavior easier to break than we think? One therapist friend of mine thinks so: “I’m always amazed at what happens when I conduct a therapy session. My session room has a nice view from atop the Hollywood Hills. When people arrive, the woodsy surroundings tend to put them in a relaxed frame of mind….I observe them getting out of their cars, looking around at Nature with relief and contentment, and proceed to the front door. They follow me upstairs for the session, and as we chat everything is plum and positive until I ask, `So, what kind of challenges are you having in your life?’”

“Immediately, I notice their shoulders slumping, facial expression drooping, their breathing starting to labor, and their voice becoming more tense, as they tell their tale of despair and decide to embrace their `troubled’ state. What I usually do is say assertively, almost in a peeved or upset tone, `Excuse me, but we haven’t started the session yet!’ What happens? Immediately they say, `Oh, I’m sorry,’ sit straight up, resume healthy posture, breathing, normal voice and facial expressions, reverting back to feeling fine. The message comes through loud and clear.”