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ATD Blog

No Joke! Why Humor Makes Talent Development Easier

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Q: Why do we not trust stairs?
A: Because they’re always up to something.

Humor doesn’t always garner the most welcome response in the workplace. You’ve all heard the detractors. We’re professional here. The work we do is serious! Incidentally, all three of these statements must be delivered in a voice two octaves below the normal speaking tone. The world of talent development is no different. Pressure to recruit, build the next generation of skilled leaders, manage their professional journey, and of course do so with dwindling resources is the norm.

There’s no doubt that the work of talent development professionals is important. Indeed, it is. It is the hard work and commitment of this cadre of devoted humans that find the diamonds in the rough, bring them in, develop them, and create talent that exceeds organizational expectations. So why not arm our TD pros with the tools they need: research, learning management systems, recruiters, instructors, IT infrastructure, curriculum—and yes, humor.

Humor helps us in ways which many are not aware. When we laugh, antibody and immune levels increase, we take deeper breaths, our heart rate goes up, and blood flow throughout the body increases. The emotional and physical response to humor make us more relaxed which is why we sleep better. And let’s face it, there’s not a soul in the talent-building world who couldn’t use more of that.

Humor also improves our approachability. When people are willing to engage you because you connect with them at the level of the funny bone, you open an avenue to innovation and productivity. We also plant the seed of a trusting relationship with someone based simply on the fact that you have something in common.


Finally, humor builds productive teams. Recent research has noted that there is a significant relationship between having fun at work and organizational citizenship behavior including loyalty to an organization, and helping members of your team. Teams that work well together are far more productive than those who are negatively impacted by pride, competition, and distrust.

Given the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of a little levity in our work environments, it’s somewhat difficult to understand why there would be any barriers at all, but there are. First, humor takes a little courage, a willingness to put ones-self out there. It can also be a challenge to identify with whom humor may be strategically introduced. It goes without saying that frivolity among colleagues is the easiest path. Generally, peers are more welcoming of informality and often welcome the distraction.


And for those still hesitant to buy into the laughter argument, take note from Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado Boulder who provided some excellent advice in his book The Humor Code, especially for those who may be afraid to take a step toward a little workplace fun. As McGraw notes, it’s not really about whether or not you are actually funny (that’s in the eye of the target audience anyway). He stresses the need to embrace the concept of "aha" funny, which is not the same as "ha-ha" funny. Both have advantages. The latter is more joke-based, the former is cleverer. Do whatever works for you, and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. It’s the ultimate leveling of the playing field.

So, step out on the edge a little. When recruiting, when in the classroom, when building talent development plans, incorporate a little fun. And to those who argue that humor in the workplace is not professional, take comfort in knowing that they are completely wrong. Environments marked with humor and joy are far more likely to result in commitment to the organization, performance, and pride. Make it tasteful, not personal, innocent, or hurtful. You and your organization will benefit.

Q: Why are Koalas not really bears?
A: They’re not koalified.

I can hear you laughing now.

About the Author

Patrick Malone is director of Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics and has extensive experience working with government leaders. Patrick’s research, teaching, and scholarship include work in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, ethics, and public administration and policy. He is a retired navy captain, having spent 22 years in a number of senior leadership and policy roles.

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