The late and much beloved chief executive of Coca-Cola, Roberto Goizueta, had the ability. He could distance himself from a situation, and by standing back and observing things objectively, he could see the irony. Humor is a critical business weapon.
We’ve all worked for the humorless. There are the bosses whom I call “Rocky” who take on the whole world through earnestness. And we’re in big trouble if we don’t seem equally serious. We can’t joke that sales plunged one percent or that a supplier might not meet a deadline. In such offices you can cut the tension with a knife. And usually results aren’t what they could be.
No matter who’s the boss, we can still get a few laughs at our own expense–and be able to work better. A colleague of mine is a genius at this. If his plane is late and his blood pressure is rising, he distances himself. He often thinks to himself: “How will this ‘nightmare’ seem to me a year from now…a brief scene in this saga we call “life.” Another colleague, when stressed out, tries to imagine how he would explain his “predicament” to his six-year-old. Pretty quickly the concerns of the day start to sound ridiculous. He calls that “baby-proofing’ his consciousness.
There’s no excuse for total, self-aborted seriousness. It’s boring. It pushes others away from you. And it requires a whole lot of energy to assume such a world view. Oh, of course, there are times for seriousness. But we all know when they are. If the company can’t seem to achieve a turnaround there will be plenty of people focused solely on the bottom line. No chuckles there. When someone else has a problem, it’s showing respect to treat their situation seriously. In addition, as we enter a company or grow into a new job, we can leave the levity to others. At my company there are few managers-in-training who are a barrel of laughs. Learning the ropes is definitely serious business.
On formal performance appraisals, it might be a good idea if we introduced the category “Can laugh at themselves.” In an organization where a little self-deprecation is encouraged, people are more likely to take risks and therefore make mistakes. In the current global marketplace, where there are a few precedents anymore, plenty of errors of judgement are going to be made.