(Originally published in Mr. Struck’s column in ACA International’s monthly newsletter, Management Trends)

By Jim Struck

I’m starring out over the “frozen tundra” known as my back yard struggling with an idea for my column. After a few moments of asking myself what I needed more of, I was struck by the idea that it was laughter, or more humor. I hadn’t laughed enough lately.

The second connection I made was that my wife and I were with friends last night on our way to a concert. We were stuck in traffic and weren’t going anywhere. After 40 minutes even I, the patient guy, was becoming increasingly annoyed.

About that time my friend turned his satellite radio to the National Lampoon station. In short order we were treated to a series of comedians and their stories/jokes. Soon we were all laughing. As the laughter continued I realized I was no longer irritated. This isn’t a connection lost on me. Whether you subscribe to laughter is the best medicine or something else, there is enough understanding of the science of humor to see its value. I understood all this I just hadn’t had it so graphically on display as during that car ride. One minute the mood in the car was turning ugly, the next moment we’re laughing and feeling a whole lot better.

What’s the connection with work? Humor can take many forms to help a business succeed.  It can play a key role in increasing productivity, improving internal and external communications, and boost overall morale.  Consider how you use humor in your business operations and for what benefits.  Does your company have the ability to make fun of itself with the mundane and daily grind of the business? Do you enjoy going to work because you have a fun office environment? Have you reaped the benefits of the company’s profit from successful business plans born out of humorous ideas?

In doing a little research for this column I ran across this quote by Bob Mankoff, “humor is the tool that transforms the petty annoyances of corporate life from anger and frustration into laughter. It helps you laugh at yourself and serves as an icebreaker in meetings and negotiations by stimulating fresh ideas, making personal connections and persuading an individual or a group in closing a deal.”

Well placed humor has the ability to transform a moment from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Have you ever had an extremely tense moment when something humorous was said and the tension evaporated?

The converse is also true. Ill timed inappropriate humor can be hurtful and spoil an otherwise enjoyable moment. Sarcasm is a form of humor that always runs the risk of being offensive, particularly when the parties don’t know each other well. I’ve had a few of those moments and they are embarrassing and painful.

Organizations, like people, can benefit from a little self-deprecating humor from time to time. Nothing endears leaders quite as fast as the ability for them to make fun of themselves.

The Crazy Hat, Crazy Sock, Crazy Whatever day…

Not long ago I encountered a team that had suffered through a particularly difficult time. There had been a lot of turnover in the leadership and accountability and trust were low. The atmosphere was almost toxic. As you can imagine, there was not a lot of humor going on there.

In the course of talking with the leader I asked her what she might do to impact the atmosphere. She talked about years earlier they had done a “crazy sock day” with great results. She followed up and gave it a try. She also had people bring in their baby pictures and have everyone guess who was who.

These weren’t instantly successful because of the history of the unit, but it did create moments of laughter and began to lay the groundwork for change. Funny thing happens when a group has a chance to laugh together…a little bonding due to a common experience.

Several years back our management team at Mutual decided that rather than exchange gifts in our usual and traditional sense (so that we’d have more stuff we didn’t need) that we’d have a White Elephant party. This is where you go into your attic, Goodwill, whatever, and get out the one thing that needs to be gone. An ugly sweater, macramé gone bad, an ash tray made by one of the children, a chia pet needing a home and the occasional item that really was kind of good. You get the picture.

Once a gift was chosen the next person could either “take” the gift from its former owner or draw a number for a new gift. A gift could be taken up to three times before it was declared off limits. In every year we had some very good natured heated moments of taking gifts from one another. The overall “winner” was declared when the fruit cake surfaced. This was a gift of such value that the recipient was instructed to return it, presumably in different wrapping, the next year. Kind of like playing Spades and having the Queen of Spades surface in your hand. I was most proud the year I “won” it.

Our White Elephant party became quite the hit as everyone vied for status among their peers by showing up with the perfect gift. Talk about laughter. In that moment we were creating memories to share for years to come…and camaraderie that was priceless.

Best joke, funniest story, “dog days” picture contest (when you were at your…well…least attractive period), crazy socks, baby pictures, white elephant parties are ways of cutting into the seriousness of our business and allowing a little relief and fun. They are not expensive, nor do they have to be time consuming. What they have to be is humorous. Humor is a magic stress reliever. You can’t get enough in this business, nor in the current state of our nation and world.

Are you laughing enough? Well then stop reading this and get busy electing your Chief of Humor (COH)! You’ll be glad you did. So will the people at home.

To the laugher in your office…cheers!! Here is to more humor in 2009!