A conversation with a stand-up comic and Water Cooler Comedy founder, David Horning
What do you call a fish wearing a bowtie?
All dad jokes aside, we know that humor comes in many forms. From “knock-knock” jokes to funny pet videos on YouTube – humor allows for moments of shared lightness (and boy, do we need that now more than ever). There has long been the belief that humor should be reserved for outside of the workplace, but research has proven that simply isn’t the case. Studies have found time and time again that humor can be a powerful tool in inspiring happiness, curating creativity, improving productivity, and fostering a collaborative workplace culture.
With people feeling stressed and on edge, workplace engagement has become less than optimal. That is why we jumped at the opportunity to learn more about how we can help our clients formally add “humor into the workplace.” In a recent “Bring Out The Talent” podcast episode, TTA’s President and CEO, Maria Melfa, and Talent Manager, Jocelyn Allen, sat down with comedian and founder of Water Cooler Comedy, David Horning, to discuss incorporating humor into the workplace.
Q: There are incredible benefits to bringing humor in the workplace, yet so many companies do not embrace this philosophy. Why do you believe that many so leaders don’t want to have fun in the workplace?
A: It’s uncomfortable. It’s fear. It’s new. It’s breaking up the status quo. It’s so much easier to maintain the way things are than doing something that’s outside of the box, there’s a risk that it might not work. But the ultimate irony is that taking those risks and making those mistakes help us learn faster. When you’re able to laugh – it rallies the people around you because it humanizes yourself, it level sets you as a leader. And now you have a tribe of people who are looking to make this work. So not only can you get to the right solution faster – it brings people together. It builds that trust.
I also think a lot of it has to do with the questions that we ask ourselves – from a leadership position. Usually, the question is, what should we do, or shouldn’t we do? And there aren’t only two answers there. Life is way more nuanced than that. And that’s what I love about comedy – comedy explores the nuance. It explores the great explorers. It goes beyond judgment and the binary way of thinking.
So, instead of asking the question, “should we or shouldn’t we use humor in the workplace?”, the question leaders need to ask is, how can we do it? How can we do it based on our culture, on our people, on our personality? How can we combine all these things and make this a possibility? Because there are so many different ways to answer that question that can be overwhelming – so there is never just one right answer. If only life were that simple, but that would make life boring.
Q: How can an organization effectively bring humor into their workplace if it’s something that they haven’t necessarily explored purposefully before?
A: It depends on the organization. I always say you can’t change a leopard’s spots, right? So, if you’re somebody who is nose to the grind, loves working, stressed out, but you’re interested in humor. My advice to you is don’t try to be funny, because once you start trying to be funny it may even betray people’s trust. If you go from “all business all the time” to suddenly you’re cracking jokes. People will wonder where did this come from? So, I think a lot of it has to do with finding those people that work with you who are already surrounded by laughter, who are the ones who are willing to take a risk and tell a joke. Those people that bring the sunshine into the office – lean onto those people.
Lean into those people who are already using humor and maybe give them the task of coming up with a few activities they can do. I always say active themed days, things like “Dad Joke Wednesday” where people bring their favorite bad joke and then we vote on them. At the end of the day, whoever has the best dad joke wins something and it’s a shared experience. So, it’s finding out what works for your organization, what works for your people, what works for your company culture, your mission values, and what’s the first step you can take. What’s one step that you can take and how can you lean into the people who are already doing it?
Q: How would recommend someone handle a difficult boss who doesn’t appreciate humor in the workplace?
A: It’s all about knowing your audience and meeting your audience where you are. I always say you can’t perform for the audience you wish you had. You have to perform for the audience that you do have and that changes the way you approach humor in the workplace. I’ve worked for some humor-less bosses before, and it’s always taken me time. But I’m always the one who toes the line. That’s always been my place in an organization – how can I toe the line but also be very likable? For me, I know that I have to get in this person’s mind first and figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and then play that line and get to know them on a human level.
One thing that I tell people to help them work with a difficult boss is to imagine yourself as a character on a sitcom show. The show is about you and all of the other people you’re dealing with. Let’s say it’s like a workplace comedy, like The Office. Your boss is just this person who lacks self-awareness and doesn’t allow certain things that would be beneficial for the workplace. They’re acting against their own best interest constantly – without even realizing it. That’s a character on your show and you are the main character. So, the main character has to find a way to overcome those obstacles. So, using my strengths as a character, my knowledge, my experience, how can I connect with that other character? It changes how you look at other people instantly.
So instead of dreading them, think of them like a Michael Scott, from the TV series, “The Office.” Just having that simple shift in perspective. It changes how you feel about the person. It changes how you approach them and changes how you talk to other people. Even your posture becomes more upright without you even realizing it. A simple reframing can make all the difference in how you approach a situation.
Q: Do you think organizations are ready to make the shift and embrace humor in the workplace?
A: I think they’re open to making the shift that they’re looking for. They’re looking for ways to engage people. Priorities have shifted. They’re now asking – how do we connect virtually? How do we make sure people are protected and safe? And so, employee engagement was put on the back burner for a little bit because we had to make this big shift. So now I think that those organizations are looking for ways to engage their teams. But here’s the thing – we have years and years of data on engagement studies and data, and it shows us that workplaces that embrace humor have higher results. But it’s just a matter of overcoming that mental block, that fear that, oh, if we make work the time and place to laugh, then there’s not a time and place to work. So, ultimately, it’s just a matter of overcoming that mental block.
More and more organizations are valuing humor in the workplace. There are more training programs and workshops on it. In fact, I’m working with a company that does stand-up comedy training as part of their onboarding. So, everybody that works there has gone through this comedy training where each employee does a set by the end of the training workshop. What they have found is that it creates a sense of buy-in and immediate trust from new employees because everybody’s been in the same boat, even the people who are terrified of getting on stage and speaking in front of people. When you see a room of people who have gone through that same experience, it creates instant bonding, instant trust. And they’ve seen positive results. They’re able to they have an edge in recruiting when it comes to getting creative talents because now creativity is a skill that’s so highly valued in the workplace, the company that allows their people to have fun and go through this interesting onboarding experience or the rival company who’s just like every other company, who are you going to go with? You’re going to go with that company where you can see that your creativity will be valued. More and more companies are warming up to the idea. But it’s a matter of taking that first step.
Q: Do you think poor workplace culture could be contributing to the reason why people don’t necessarily want to go back to work? Do you think workplace humor could possibly solve that issue?
A: I have a long history in the service industry and that’s an industry that has been fundamentally changed by what’s going on right now. I went into that industry looking at it as a survival job, but I was lucky enough to work at a restaurant with a leadership team that allowed us to be creative, that allowed us to think outside of the box, and the way we solve problems – they were very open and embraced the idea of just being able to laugh together and laugh openly and often. It changed the “survival job” into a place that I ended up working at for almost five years.
When you’re around people that you look forward to seeing when you’re around leaders that you look forward to going above and beyond for – it creates that intrinsic buy-in and that intrinsic motivation. Employees end up recommending the business and referring it to their friends and family to work there. This is a great place to work. I have fun. There doesn’t necessarily have to be a service industry. You can be anywhere. Are your people leaving and telling their friends and family excitedly about their job, or is it just another day, another dollar? What kind of mentality are you imparting upon your people? And humor plays a role in that because an organization that is open to using humor is also an organization that is open to allowing their employees to be creative.
A question leaders should ask themselves is – are your people leaving work with that mentality where they can’t wait to come back tomorrow, even though we have still a job? Do you see them going above and beyond for one another? Do you see them going above and beyond for you? You know, if one person’s work is done, are they just on Facebook scrolling, or are they going to help somebody else? There are all these little quantitative measures that you can kind of look at, these quantitative behaviors you can look at to tell whether or not you’re cultivating a culture where people want to be. Now that we’re getting back to work, people are kind of self-examining and thinking, do I want to come back here?
Q: You mentioned in the past that there are many different types of humor, but some you find more effective in managing the workplace. Can you talk to us about what those are?
A: There are four styles of humor, but there are two that are more beneficial. There are two negative styles and two positive styles, and each of us is kind of predisposed to one of those styles. There’s a survey somewhere where people can take and figure out what kind of style of humor that they’re more predisposed to. One is aggressive humor, which is sarcasm. It’s cutting down somebody else to make yourself feel better. There is self-defeating humor, which is different from self-deprecating humor. Self-defeating humor has other people feeling bad for you. It may start from a place of self-deprecation, which we could all use. We could all laugh at ourselves a little bit. But if that laughing at ourselves doesn’t serve as a springboard to learning and adjusting our behaviors, then it can be disruptive. So self-defeating humor is not a positive humor style just because it has people feeling worse after you’re done doing it.
On the inverse, there is self-enhancing humor, which can also include self-deprecating humor, because it’s kind of the setup to a punch line, which is kind of a solution to a joke. So being able to laugh at your behaviors and use that as a starting point for learning and growing can make your mistakes feel a little more palatable and also humanize you to the people around you. And then there is affiliative humor, which is being able to make connections between unlike things to ease tension.
I use a story in my presentations where I share that I used to work at a job where literally one of the policies handed down by the owner was not to tell people they’re doing a good job because if you tell people they’re doing a good job, they’re going to stop wanting to work hard, which is so funny to me. There are so many studies out there that its great appreciation makes people work better. But I digress. So that was the kind of culture we were dealing with there. Then one day somebody dropped a tray full of drinks and everyone stopped what they were doing and laughed. It was a super stressful shift to so, you know, it was like the worst timing for this. But everybody stopped what they were doing and laughed. And it was that moment that we needed, to cut the stress, and break up the tension. We’re all going to rally together and get through this shift, just like we get through every other shift. Then the one boss just comes in and yells, this is not the time or place to laugh. I worked at a comedy club, so by definition, it was absolutely the time and the place to laugh. So, I noticed this, and it made me laugh. Later, I share that experience with some of my coworkers and we laughed again together, and it got us through the shift together. So, it’s connecting those unlike thoughts where there’s this angry boss and normally that would make us feel bad and we’d go back to work, stressed out, walking on eggshells, but in this case, finding the irony in that situation. So that’s an example of affiliative humor, where it’s used to uplift, where it’s used to make observations and ease the tension. So affiliative, self-enhancing aim for those you can start from a place of self-defeating or aggressive humor as long as it ends with that positive outcome.
Q: What ways would you say that sarcasm can be appropriate in the workplace?
A: There are several factors that come into play. The intent. Do you want the other person to feel better or are you trying to cut them down? If you’re trying to cut down, that behavior needs to stop right now. The intent is key. You also need to consider the audience – who are you being sarcastic to? Is it somebody that you banter with back and forth sarcastically often? Or is this somebody that you’ve never cracked a joke in front of before? You definitely need to get to know your audience first.
When I get on stage, if I just walk in and I’m the first comic up, I haven’t had a chance to see how the audience is responding to other comics jokes. I’ll do a couple of easy, simple jokes to kind of feel where the audience is in the room and then kind of meet them where they are and then mentally change my set according to their response to those jokes. So, know your audience and the intent. Again, the outcome here is to make them feel better. So, if you can start with sarcasm and then pivot that in. Self-enhancing or pivot that into a more affiliative style of humor, where you’re making connections or you’re finding an uplifting punchline at the end of it like there’s any number of ways to do it. But I think those are the three things you have to look out for. The one question I tend to question myself on a lot, I ask myself questions that evaluate where I am, if what I’m going to do is right or wrong, or whatever. But asking that question, “is this going to make their day better?” If you even pause for even a second to think about it, maybe reevaluate.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about the workshops that you conduct.
A: The goal of these workshops, first and foremost, before we get into the nitty-gritty, is to shift people’s mindset, and to think like a comedian before you act like a leader. And what I mean by “think like a comedian” is to question the surface value of everything and to step outside of yourself and ask yourself, how would somebody else look at this? It’s important to realize that no matter how tough the current situation is, there is something funny there, even though you might not know what it is at first. So, it’s starting to shift to that mindset because that’s not the way most people think. Most people are taught to think very judgmentally. I always have people describe 2020 in one word and then the following question is what was one way that you grew as a human being because of 2020 that you wouldn’t have otherwise?
My first goal is to teach people how to consciously start to reframe their state of mind. We do that through hands-on activities, a lot of self-reflection, a lot of communication, and stream of consciousness exercises where people talk together. What I want people to do in these training programs is to root for one another and to support one another and be willing to be vulnerable and share their perspectives, because we have to start from where we are to get to where we want to go. And if we can incorporate a mindset shift and that’s the first goal that I have. Focus on the mindset first and foremost, and then we go from there to develop the acting like a leader.
For the full “Bring Out The Talent” podcast episode with David Horning click here. To learn more about David or to find out how you can incorporate humor in your workplace, speak to a TTA Learning Expert today!