There is a great piece in Business Insider that my colleague, Steve Kakos, shared with me last week. It’s by Matt Weinberger and it details a meeting between writers from HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and Astro Teller, the head of X – the division of Google’s parent company Alphabet that is working on self-driving cars, Google Glass and other large scale innovations. Teller was testy with the group because he felt that their comedy show was disrespectful to the important work they were doing at X. One of the writers, Carrie Kemper, recounted the unintentionally hilarious way the meeting ended: “….Teller’s attempt at a big exit was a bit awkward because he was wearing rollerblades. He ‘wobbled’ to the door and struggled to get the door open with his ID badge…all in clear view of the gathered ‘Silicon Valley’ writers.”
“Authenticity” has become such a buzzword that its meaning has become almost completely lost. Here’s a better word: “Comedy.” The ability to have a sense of humor about yourself, about your work, about the world is absolutely essential to both business and your personal well-being. As part of her storytelling class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Jennifer Aaker noted that in a recent productivity study, individuals who participated in a humor workshop had 50% fewer sick days and were able to increase productivity by 15% over those who didn’t participate.
Turns out, funny is good for you.
I suspect that most would agree with that statement. So why do we turn our places of business into no laughter zones? Is it because we fear looking foolish or showing vulnerability or do we simply distrust the science that says happier people are more effective people?
Comedy is a significant art form that allows us to speak truth to power; to reveal unconscious bias; to glean insights from reflections of everyday human behavior; it is a powerful tool when looking to create sticky messages and it makes space for us to have difficult conversations. These things are not only needed in the workplace. These things are essential in the workplace.
But it all starts with having a sense of humor – about yourself. And I know I’ve been lucky. All of my bosses at The Second City over the last 28 years have been funny and self-effacing (and that’s still the case today). But this is a lesson to other leaders. If you want to create an environment that can maximize the full creative extent of its workforce, you have to model behaviors that may at times make you a tad bit vulnerable.
Vaclav Havel said, “Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.”
Lose the rollerblades, Astro, and recognize that an authentic leader is a leader who can take a joke.