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Education competencies: Humor

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success. View all competencies.

Overview

Has a positive and constructive sense of humor. Can laugh at himself/herself and with others. Is appropriately funny and can use humor to ease tension.

Proficiency level

Level 1: Basic Level 2: Intermediate Level 3: Advanced Level 4: Expert
Generally uses humor in a positive way Uses humor to bring people together Knows exactly when and where a joke or story will be effective Can see humor in almost everything
Is conscientious about timing and setting for humor Uses humor to boost morale or decrease tension Has a great sense of timing Sought out by others for guidance in this area
Tries to defuse tense situations with appropriate humor Uses humor to make for a more relaxed and productive atmosphere Realizes when and where humor will backfire, and withholds Uses humor as a uniting dynamic across a range of situations
Can laugh at self and others Allows others to be funny Understands that laughter makes a more comfortable meeting, classroom, etc. Recognizes and appreciates a great sense of humor in others

Overdoing humor

  • May disrupt group process with untimely or inappropriate humor
  • May use humor to deflect real issues and problems
  • May use humor to criticize others and veil an attack
  • May use humor to deliver sarcasm or cynicism
  • May be perceived as immature or lacking in appropriate seriousness
  • His/her humor may be misinterpreted

Essential questions

To improve your proficiency, ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:
  • In a seemingly serious situation, what nuggets of humor or irony can I find?
  • When faced with a potentially difficult situation, is there a way that humor could help? Could lead to a better outcome?
  • Am I funnier than I think I am? Less funny? Who will give me an honest assessment of my sense of humor?
  • Could I start my next meeting, presentation, or conversation by telling a funny story?
  • What are the humorous situations in my life that have taught me something?
To avoid overdoing humor, ask yourself:
  • When have I used humor in the last year when I shouldn’t have? When may it have backfired?
  • Do I ever encourage a near party atmosphere because of my comfort with using humor?
  • Knowing that some people are more easily offended than I, could my use of humor put people off? Is there a chance I’m offending people but I’m unaware of it?
  • Do I avoid discussing or solving the real issue by making a joke?

Interview questions

  • Tell me about a time you used humor in a presentation. Did it work? If you had to give the same presentation again, how would you change it?
  • Tell me about a time when something really funny happened at work. What benefit did it serve?
  • Tell me about a time when an attempt at humor didn’t work out the way you expected. What do you now know about the people or the situation that you didn’t know at the time? How would you approach the same situation today?
  • Tell me about a time when you used humor to defuse a tense situation. How did you approach it? What was the outcome? What did you learn from the situation? Have you been able to apply what you learned in a new situation where humor was appropriate?

Learning on the job

Learning on your own: These self-development remedies will help you build your skill(s).
  • Where to find humor. There are topics that can be near universally humorous. Misers, bad drivers, absent-minded people, anything that is understood worldwide as the human condition. What's a ridiculous situation you've been caught in lately? There are funny things in the workplace. The jargon of it, memos, ironic rules. And there is always the news. Humor that unites people rather than puts down people or groups is always safe.
  • Self-humor. Self-humor is usually safe, seen as positive by others, and most of the time leads to increased respect.
  • Avoidance humor. Some make light of things that make them uncomfortable. It's a very human defense technique. There is a difference between using unrelated humor for tension relief, which can be a good practice, and using direct humor to make light of the person or the issue.
  • Timing. There is a time for everything and sometimes humor is not appropriate. Since you are reading this because you or others don't think you are good at using humor, the best technique is to follow the lead of others.
  • Being funnier. There are some basic humor tactics. Use exaggeration, use reversal, be brief. Cut out unnecessary words. Humor condenses the essential elements of a situation, just as good writing does. If the time of day or the color of the sky or city it happened in is not relevant, leave it out. Be on the lookout for the ridiculous around you. Jot down funny things that happen around you so you can remember them.
  • Letting others be humorous. Sometimes people who aren't very humorous (or are very serious) chill and suppress humor in others. Even if you're not going to work on being more humorous or funny, at least let others be.
Learning more from your plan: These additional remedies will help make this development plan more effective for you.
  • Learning to learn better:
    • Learn new and frivolous skills to study how you learn

      Practice learning frivolous and fun skills (like juggling, square dancing, skeet shooting, video games, etc.) to see yourself under different and less personal or stressful learning conditions. Ask yourself why that was easy while developing new personal/managerial skills is so hard. Try something harder with the same tactics.

    • Learning from experience, feedback, and other people
    • Using multiple models

      Who, for example, has an effective use of humor? Think more broadly than your current job and colleagues. For example clergy, friends, spouses, or community leaders are also good sources for potential models.

    • Getting feedback from peers/colleagues

      Your peers and colleagues may not be candid if they are in competition with you. Some may not be willing to be open you with you out of fear of giving you an advantage. Some may give you exaggerated feedback to deliberately cause you undue concern. You have to set the tone and gauge the trust level of the relationship and the quality of the feedback.

    • Learning from bad things that happen

      Bad things happen to everyone, sometimes because of what we do and sometimes with help from us. We all have bad bosses, bad staffs, impossible and hopeless situations, impossible tasks, and unintended consequences. Aside from the trouble these bad things cause for you, the key is how can you learn from each of them.

    • Learning from bad situations

      All of us will find ourselves in bad situations from time to time. Good intentions gone bad. Impossible tasks and goals. Hopeless projects. Even though you probably can’t perform well, the key is to at least take away some lessons and insights. Was there anything ironic, odd, or downright funny in all of this?

Recommended readings

  • Adams, Scott.Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel.New York: HarperBusiness, 2002.
  • Antion, Tom.Wake ’Em Up: How to Use Humor and Other Professional Techniques to Create Alarmingly Good Business Presentations.Landover Hills, MD: Anchor Publishing, 1997.
  • Barry, Dave. Claw Your Way to the Top [sound recording]. Beverly Hills, CA: Dove Audio, 1993.
  • Bing, Stanley.What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness.New York: HarperBusiness, 2002.
  • DeGeneres, Ellen.The Funny Thing Is.New York: Simon & Schuster 2003.
  • Drennan, Miriam, and Joel Anderson.Soar Above the Madness: Surviving Office Politics Without Losing Your Mind, Your Job, or Your Lunch.New York: Rutledge Hill Press, 2002.
  • Fahlman, Clyde.Laughing Nine to Five—The Quest for Humor in the Workplace.Portland, OR: Steelhead Press, 1997.
  • Kerr, Cherie, and Sim Middleton.What's So Funny? How to Get Humor and Good Storytelling Into Your Speeches and Presentations.Anaheim, CA: Execuprov Press, 2000.
  • Kerr, Michael.You Can't Be Serious! Putting Humor to Work.Alberta: Speaking of Ideas, 2001.
  • Macks, Jon.How to Be Funny.New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
  • Marlatt, Andrew.Economy of Errors: SatireWire Gives Business the Business.New York: Broadway Books, 2002.
  • O'Rourke, P.J.The CEO of the Sofa.New York: Grove Press, 2002.
  • Ross, Bob, and Jack Moore.Funny Business Solutions: The Art of Using Humor Constructively.Durham, UK: Arrowhead Press, 2000.
  • Tamblyn, Doni.Laugh and Learn: 95 Ways to Use Humor for More Effective Teaching and Training.New York: AMACOM, 2002.

Next steps

Copyright © 1992, 1996, 2001-2003 by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This work is derived from the LEADERSHIP ARCHITECT® Competency Library developed and copyrighted by Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo for Lominger Limited, Inc.

This competency is one in a set of complete functional and behavioral qualities that, when fully realized, can help lead to professional success.
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