Jay Leno brought his act, called the “Comedy Stimulus Show,” to the Motor City for two shows this week; tickets were free. A car enthusiast, as well as a collector, Leno has long exhibited a kinship with this blue collar city. “This is one of the great industrial cities,” Leno told his audience. “This is a city that actually makes a product.”
To reporters Leno said, “GM’s not bankrupt yet, I was there today actually. I saw a lot of good product.” And now that the city and its environs are down in the dumps, Leno is doing what he does best: telling jokes and helping to take locals’ minds off the worst economic crisis to hit Detroit since the Great Depression.
Leno’s example is a good one for leaders to follow. While most leaders are not comedians, though lately a few in the financial sector have provided excuses for bonuses that have proven to be laughable, good leaders possess good people instincts. And right now most people, no matter what job they are doing, could do with a laugh. My point is not to turn you into a jokemeister, but rather to help you find ways to look at life from a different perspective. So, in that spirit, here are three ways to inject some levity into your workplace.
Point out absurdity. Leno is a master at satirizing everyday reality. “I don’t want to say our economy is bad, but now Mexico is building a wall.” Leno loves to poke fun at new products, want ads, and male virility. His long-running Jay Walking series in which he interviews people on the street illustrate just how hysterically unaware people can be about history and current events. Same applies to the workplace. We all operate on assumptions that someone else makes the coffee, buys the doughnuts and brings all the snacks.
Lampoon hypocrisy. “Now the government didn’t ask any of those Wall Street CEOs to quit. Isn’t that kind of a double standard?” Leno wonders. “If you build Cadillacs you are screwed. But if your chauffeur drives a Cadillac, you’re okay.” This joke underscores the double standard perceived by automakers who feel that those on Wall Street have been bailed out while those in Detroit have been put out. In corporate terms, this duality plays out when bosses reduce bonuses while employees reduce salary. There are always dichotomies between what we say and what we do.
Take the high and mighty down a peg. From his jokes about Bill Clinton’s “appetites,” George W. Bush’s work ethic, and Barack Obama’s bowling, Leno takes aim at presidents’ foibles. So in this spirit, start with yourself. Make it safe for people to make light of your shortcomings. If you tell a joke on yourself, you ease the tension in the room, especially when people are feeling uptight about work and their place in it.
As with all things humorous, tread carefully. Avoid jokes that lampoon gender and ethnicity; if you suspect a joke may be taken the wrong way, act on that assumption and don’t use it. The point of humor in the workplace is not telling jokes; it is to lighten the mood.
A leader’s job is to make the work continue. You see, even in Detroit, as bad as things are, the automakers are continuing to operate. And while the economic pallor remains shades of gray, people still have jobs to do. It is up to leaders to keep people focused. Reminding them of their humanity through laughter is a good way to do it.
First posted on HBR.org 4/09/2009