How to create an environment for joy and fun

By Heather Campbell

‘Tis the season to be jolly and all that! I love Christmas although the false jollity that increasingly pervades the season isn’t to my taste. It’s a personal thing, of course.

With Christmas just around the corner, I was intrigued to get a request from Malcolm Hicks of Weir Minerals Australia. His request seemed particularly appropriate with the festive season approaching.

Malcolm asked me to share my views about humour in the workplace. He wrote: I would be interested in your valued response, or maybe even article 😊. Personally, I believe that (humour) is an important but often not used tool, especially in the toxic times that you discussed in your last article.

So, here goes Malcolm, I hope you find my response is indeed worthy of being valued 😊.

I will start by whole-heartedly agreeing with Malcolm’s own points about humour – that it:

  • Makes work fun
  • Makes difficult challenges less daunting, reduces stress
  • Releases tension and allows open participation
  • If delivered correctly, makes difficult challenges a team challenge as opposed to individual
  • If delivered incorrectly can distract or offend individuals and can divide people
  • Must never include “tomfoolery” which could lead to risk of injury, especially in a production environment.

This is a list that research from leading business schools very much support as well. Time after time, humour is shown as incredibly positive, increasing open-mindedness, morale and productivity. Humour really does show on the bottom line!

But…before you don your Christmas jumper and brush up on your festive jokes, make sure you know how to use humour correctly or you won’t get the uplift in morale, performance and bottom-line benefits that you might expect come January.

You see, humour has a dark side as Malcolm’s list highlights. Used inappropriately, humour can result in violating norms (all too often, there’s at least one person who takes it too far); undermining or even threatening others on a personal level (ever been the unwilling butt of the office joke?); or blurring boundaries that are hard to reinstate (humour is a great equaliser and it can be hard for leaders to re-set essential boundaries after a fun night out).

For me, rather like joy at Christmas, humour in the workplace can’t be manufactured. It has to be real to bring real benefits. I also think that, like joy at Christmas, the more you try to create it, the more it eludes you. You cannot create humour by trying to set up ‘humorous’ or ‘fun’ situations if you don’t have a fundamentally healthy culture in the first place. I’m sure we’ve all experienced those times when the boss tried to arrange a team get together that nobody wanted to go to because morale or relationships were so poor. We’ve sat in tense meetings where cruel comments were thinly veiled with apparent humour. Sometimes, humour truly isn’t funny.

Instead of manufacturing humour, leaders need to create an environment that allows humour to naturally emerge as part of the working environment. There are no short-cuts and no great secrets here, either. Humour naturally emerges when people feel valued, trusted and respected. Humour naturally emerges when we give it time and space to do so. Humour naturally emerges when leaders engage in a consistently constructive way rather than picking faults or, even worse, being up one day and down the next.

In short, humour naturally emerges when leaders show the same leadership behaviours that naturally lead to a good working environment.

Malcolm shared with me some feedback he had from a team member about how much he enjoyed the social side of working with the team – in fact, he had stayed longer in his role because of the fun of team nights out. But I suspect that, while Malcolm and his team enjoyed the benefits of humour during these events, the underpinning team culture was a positive one, created every day through Malcolm’s style of leadership.

If you’ve already created a good environment in your team, I’m sure you’re already enjoying plenty of Christmas humour and joy too. And, if there’s been less enthusiasm for Christmas Jumper day and Secret Santa than you might have wished, maybe it’s a sign that all is not well right now. But don’t wait until December to try to get the Christmas spirit going again. Focus on creating the right environment all through the year and you’ll reap the benefits far sooner than December 2023!

Wishing you and yours all the very best for the festive season.

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