Business & Humor: Handle with Care
Humor is a great way to defuse tension and at the same time, a delicate balancing act. Where a well-chosen and carefully delivered humorous anecdote can go a long way to lighten the mood, elevate spirits or kick off what could otherwise be a dull meeting, the opposite is also true.
It’s 1983. My father, an executive in a petrochemical company, walks into a hastily convened town hall meeting bursting with eyes-like-knives. It seems there is a bad smell emanating from a newly constructed chemical plant nearby and the citizens who live in the area are not happy.
Taking his place at the podium, Dad faces the crowd and begins to speak. “My goal,” he informs them, “is to keep our business out of your noses.”
After a good laugh, the group relaxed and together they launched into a useful dialogue. What’s the lesson here? Humor is a great way to defuse tension and at the same time, a delicate balancing act. Where a well-chosen and carefully delivered humorous anecdote can go a long way to lighten the mood, elevate spirits or kick off what could otherwise be a dull meeting, the opposite is also true.
People most often get into trouble by making off-the-cuff jokes or comments that just land badly. Unless you are particularly skilled at extemporaneous humor and also have a knack for “reading the room” then it’s best to avoid trying to be funny in the moment, especially in high-stakes situations.
Look no further than the US Presidential race for some prime examples of impromptu humor gone bad: Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire quipped to a group of unemployed workers, “I should tell my story. I’m also unemployed.” Ouch! And President Obama, a usually effective speaker got in hot water when he made a self-deprecating joke about his poor bowling skills. “It’s like the Special Olympics or something,” he said. Double ouch!
Neither man wanted to offend–they were attempting to build relationships through a little old-fashioned wisecracking. Unfortunately, as the old proverb goes, “That which is said, cannot be unsaid.”
How do you approach humor in the business world?