Paul E. McGhee, PhD
Humor and Fun on the Job Boost Productivity
A good sense of humor makes cents in business.
For the past 15 months, I have been discussing the benefits of nurturing humor in the workplace. The last 3 columns have offered detailed examples of what some American companies are doing to put fun to work. Companies would not be doing things to bring humor and fun to their work settings unless they were convinced that this helped employees meet the challenge to be more productive and sustain high levels of quality in both products and services to customers. However, while many executives have seen humor and fun increase productivity in their own company, there remains surprisingly little research on the topic.
In the study by David Abramis which was discussed in the March, 2002 article in this column, people who were able to find ways to make their job fun were more productive. In a study in which group members engaged in an anagrams task, groups which laughed more came up with more anagrams.1 This suggests that work settings in which a team must put their heads together to come up with solutions to a problem will be more successful when they share humor and laughter. Humor in small groups has been shown to create an environment that supports employee accomplishment.2
Consistent with this finding, in a survey of more than 350 alumni from Salisbury's Perdue School of Business, women managers who use humor in the workplace are viewed as more effective by their staff than those who dont use humor.3
In a survey of 750 major companies conducted by the Campbell Research Corporation in 1994, two-thirds of the companies had casual dress days--usually on Friday. (Casual dress days are days in which all employees are invited to "dress down," wearing comfortable everyday clothes instead of suits, ties, etc.) Of that two-thirds, 81% felt that this improved morale, and 47% said it increased productivity.4 Another group of researchers asked 322 employees at a large Canadian financial institution to rate their supervisors on leadership style and use of humor. A year later, the units that performed the best throughout the year had managers whose management style was geared toward raising employee performance through humor and other forms of intellectual stimulation.5
In the mid-1990s, The Bank of America challenged each employee to make a fellow employee laugh each day during April (national humor month). Those who did, received a book containing all the jokes and cartoons used by all employees during the month. When complaints were received that this wasted valuable employee time and paper in a frivolous, non-productive way, management defended its emphasis on fun by noting that the highest percentage of workers compensation payments was directly related to workplace stress. This wasnt just fun, it was good business.6
Matt Weinstein, who shows companies how to make work fun, has offered a great example of a manager who gradually came to see how fun boosts the bottom line. The story is about
"... a line worker at an aircraft manufacturing company who approached his manager with a fun idea. The worker suggested that, on the first day of spring, the employees be allowed to go outside and stage a paper-airplane flying contest. The manager didnt see any point in this nonsense and called the idea insane.
The intrepid employee, after talking with his coworkers, made a counterproposal: If the team met 150 percent of its production goal by 3 p.m. Friday, the manager would give the members an hour off for their contest. Sure enough, they met the quota, and the manger let them go out and play. Afterward the manager said, If you could produce this well with an hour off, think of how much you could get done if you worked the whole day. [The guy completely missed the point, adds Weinstein.]
The following week, the same courageous worker approached the manager with another proposal. If the team made 150 percent of quota by 3 p.m. Friday, they wanted to play volleyball in the middle of the factory floor. Again they made the quota and got their reward.
The next week, the employee proposed the same deal--but this time, if the workers made the quota the manager would have to take them all out for ice cream. At this point, says Weinstein, the manager finally got the message: Fun and productivity are not mutually exclusive but are in fact complementary (emphasis added)."7
As noted in the August, 2001 article in this column, Karen Donnalley, who ran IBMs Inside Sales Center in 1996, had 75 telephone sales people working for her selling mid-sized computers to 17,000 customers in the southeast. She became convinced that people need to have fun on their jobs to be effective in sales. To bring out the spirit of fun, members of her team created an orchestra of inept musicians playing the tuba, drums, the accordion, and other odd instruments. They played a cacophonous 15-minute concert every morning. Also, (s)alespeople smash a gong when theyve made their first sale of the day and move a race horse bearing their picture out of a starting gate. In a year, her units sales rose 30%.8 This approach was so successful that Japanese visitors began asking to tour her center.
[Adapted from P. McGhee, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training.]
1. Pollio, H. & Bainum, C. Are funny groups good at problem solving? A methodological evaluation and some preliminary results. Small Group Behavior, 1983, 14, 379-404.
2. Vinton, K.L. Humor in the workplace: Is it more than telling jokes? Small Group Behavior, 1989, 20, 151-166.
3. Section on The Expert Manager. Humor on the job--avoid it to your detriment. Executive Female, 1997, 20(4), p. 23.
4. Survey reported in the St. Petersburg Times, September 30, 1994, p.10h.
5. Weiss, W.H. Humor on the job. Supervision, November, 1997, 9-11.
6. Filipczak, B. Are we having fun yet? Training, April, 1995, 48-56.
7. Filipczak, 1995.
8. Lancaster, H. Your career may be a laugh track away from the fast track (Managing Your Career column). Wall Street Journal, March 26, 1996.