Andrew Tarvin is a best-selling author and professional stand-up and improv comedian. He teaches people and organizations how to use humor to be more effective and productive. Tarvin has worked with more than 100 organizations including Procter & Gamble, GE and Western & Southern Life Insurance, speaking, training, and coaching on topics ranging from humor in the workplace to communicating confidently to strategic disengagement.
ISACA Now recently sat down with Tarvin, who will present Agile Leadership: How to Lead Up, Across, and Down in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) World at the 2016 Governance, Risk and Control Conference from 22-24 August in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA.
ISACA Now: There are so many potential landmines when it comes to using humor at work, but overthinking humor can result in stilted un-funniness. What’s the solution?
Tarvin: This a great question and a common concern for using humor in the workplace. While there are potential landmines, that doesn’t mean humor shouldn’t be used at all. Sending an email could theoretically get you fired (such as if you hit “reply all” on a distribution list causing a massive “Don’t hit reply all” flurry of emails), but we still use email. Just as email is a tool, humor is a tool.
The key to avoiding landmines while still being funny is intent. If you are using humor to get back at someone or really even “just to be funny,” it is more likely to come across negatively. However, if you have a specific reason for using humor (to connect with someone, get people to read an email, etc.), and come from a positive, inclusive perspective, your humor will be better received, creating laughter without offense.
Another way to think about it is that using humor doesn’t give you an excuse to be a jerk or talk about taboo subjects in the workplace. An offensive joke may “just be a joke,” but it’s still offensive.
ISACA Now: Governance, risk and control are not known for their ability to inspire humor. How can someone inject appropriate humor in otherwise serious tasks and jobs?
Tarvin: Who says IT governance can’t inspire humor? There’s so much to laugh about in the auditing and control of computer systems…
OK, so it can be a little dry, but the drier the material, the easier it is to instill humor because it’s so unexpected. Just because a job or work is serious doesn’t mean that it can’t be done in a fun, engaging and inspiring way. When I was a project manager at Procter & Gamble, small changes to how I worked had a huge impact. Simple things like using images in my presentations or giving my project team nicknames, went a long way in making the work more enjoyable. My colleagues from one team still call me Drewsito.
Don’t think about using humor as changing what you do, just how you do it. No matter your role, you still have to communicate messages, build relationships and be productive—all things that humor can help you do.
ISACA Now: Can humor be instilled in an entire organization? How?
Tarvin: Humor can be instilled in an entire organization, and the answer to how is simple… but not necessarily easy. It’s like how cooking is simple (follow the instructions) but not necessarily easy (my chicken always comes out burnt).
Humor in an organization comes down to individuals making a choice to find ways to enjoy their work more. The best way to encourage people to make that choice is to support them when they attempt to use humor. If someone adds humor to a presentation or email, let them know that you appreciate it (yes, even if the humor didn’t necessarily make you laugh).
Having a leadership team that embraces and uses humor is a huge help as well. The number 1 reason people don’t use humor at work more often is that they don’t think their boss or coworkers would approve. If you can dispel that myth, people will start to try new things; encourage that behavior, and it will start to spread.
It’s like a zombie apocalypse. It all starts with a patient zero and spreads from there. (For a more corporate metaphor, see Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”)
ISACA Now: We’ve all had a supervisor who used humor—or what they thought was humor—in a passive-aggressive or even an active-aggressive manner that was off-putting and more about power than leadership. Can we use humor to safely defuse those situations? How?
Tarvin: You certainly can use humor to defuse a situation, but how you do it comes down the specific circumstances. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges with humor is that it is very situational; what works in one setting for one person could backfire in a different setting with a different (or even the same) person.
For example, I think puns are like the coolest technologies we support—everyone should want to use them every day. Instead, they tend to be more like audits—people groan whenever they hear about them (sorry, just a joke to all of my auditors out there).
Safely using humor to defuse the situation goes back to having positive intent about the humor you use and really understanding your purpose.
ISACA Now: Oftentimes when teams want to solve a significant problem or do some major brainstorming the words, “Okay, let’s get serious and focus,” are used. How can humor regain a seat at the table?
Tarvin: It’s important to recognize that serious work doesn’t mean it can only be done in a serious way. In fact, the more serious something is, the more power humor tends to have, particularly when it comes to problem solving. Humor and creativity are both about finding unique connections and providing a new perspective.
In one study, students who watched a 20-minute comedy video before being asked to solve a problem were nearly 4 times more likely to solve the problem than students who didn’t watch the film. (If you want to know what problem they had to solve, check out the Candle Problem.) Humor gets the brain looking for new connections. Take this simple joke: “I can’t believe I got fired from the calendar factory. All I did was take a day off.” In order to understand it, your brain started making connections between “calendar factory” and “take a day off.” That same process is how we solve problems.
If you’re serious about solving a problem, you’ll use the best means to solve that problem, and humor is one of them.
Andrew Tarvin, Author, 2016 Governance, Risk and Control Conference Presenter
[ISACA Now Blog]