ICology: Humor in the workplace

Ep #23 - Stephanie Davies, ICology

Curious about humor in the workplace? It's not about cracking jokes or being the class clown. Stephanie Davies, CEO of Laughology, talks about why having humor at work is important and strategies on how communicators can leverage humor to bring about change in an organization. 

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Episode Transcript

Chuck: Welcome to ICology, the podcast dedicated to interesting people doing interesting things in the world of internal communications. In this episode we have Stephanie Davies from Laughology. If internal comms is your passion, then this is your podcast. Listen in.
Now let's get into today's topic. So it was interesting, I heard this...mentioned Rocky Walls again, like he's somehow the star of the show, but he was telling me about, for his company, as part of their hiring process and their application process, they ask candidates to send in a joke as part of the application process. And it's not so much a test of how funny are they, but more around, sort of, how clever are they? And how comfortable are they? Because it's really a reflection of the culture Rocky's built at Candidio and 12 Stars. Because what I've found is that for some people humor can be intimidating.

And I think it's more around the perception of what humor is. Because people who aren't naturally funny feel like they might need to be, and be put on the spot and that can be really awkward for them. And it's not that sometimes awkward situations are always bad, but it can be really uncomfortable for people. And we've seen that when people are uncomfortable and trying to be funny, it's really awkward for everybody. But having a good sense of humor can be a tremendous asset to a communicator and appreciating what your corporate culture or your organization's culture will embrace can be an amazing resource for communicators.
So next we're going to talk about sort of this mash-up of humor, internal comms, and culture with our guest. So on today's show we've got Stephanie Davies, CEO of Laughology. So Stephanie of Laughology, welcome to ICology.
Stephanie: Hi! All the "-ologies" together! Sounds great.
Chuck: It's a perfect marriage.
Stephanie: Isn't it, though?
Chuck: So I want to get started right away because you have a very interesting background. I want you to talk about the path that you entered through the world of internal communications, including how you began your professional career as a stand-up comic.
Stephanie: So my background is in stand-up comedy so it kind of made sense that my passion, and there was a real connection there to how we communicate. So when I was in my early 20s I dabbled, really, had a go at stand-up and absolutely loved it, and just became really fascinated with how humor can be used to get a message across in an audience. And also how it breaks down barriers. So you might be talking about something quite taboo as a comedian, but you can get that message across. And not only get that message across, but people engage with it, they take it on board. And you used to always see people talking about that topic afterwards as well, so it would be a great leverage for information. S

o when I started out in stand-up comedy, no way did I think about then going into a career that was using those skills but in a different way, in a corporate way, in an organizational way. It was just my thing what I was doing at the time. And I started actually delivering workshops in schools around how humor can help us with confidence, with creative thinking, with being able to get that message across differently. And then it snowballed into working in organizations. One of the teacher's partners worked in one of the banks and asked me to go and present there, and I really was interested in the way the mind works and the way as human beings we do engage in information in general. Not just when we're communicated to, but how we digest information that's all around us.

The symbols, the semantics of language, and how that actually builds our brains. I went back to university and did an MA in psychology with a real focus on behavioral psychology and the links to humor and personal development and happiness and how that has an impact on organizations. And so that's where we're up to now, where Laughology is an organization that is passionate about delivering messages in a real, engaging way, learning and development that is fun, and also how happiness can really impact on organizational development.
Chuck: One of the early episodes of ICology, a gentleman named Allan Oram and I discussed creativity in internal communications, or really kind of a lack thereof a lot of times. But what we found out is that being creative means very different things to different people. I think communicators may think the same thing exists with being funny. But you like to point out that humor isn't always about being funny. So why don't you explain what you mean by that?
Stephanie: So when we drill humor down as tool, we have to really understand what it means. Because when you talk about humor in organizations, people can get quite agitated about it, and like you said, some people think, "Well I'm funny" or, "Well I'm not and I can't do that." When we talk about humor, it's not necessarily about telling jokes, it's how we make people feel. So it's about putting people in good humor, it's opening their minds up to be receptive to information because as human beings we're motivated by the way we feel. Ninety-five percent of everything that we do is dependent on how we feel. So if we can get people into that space of feeling good, we're more likely to be able to give them information. And not just give them information, but for that information to sink in because they're in the right state. So when we talk about humor, we don't just mean telling jokes. We mean about the whole culture of an organization.

You know, in an organizational culture, the ability for people to have positive relationships, to enjoy each other's company, to enjoy what they do day-to-day. As well as all of the serious stuff that goes on in there. Has it got an opportunity, in the culture, to put people in a good mood, to understand what really motivates and creates good humor in that organization? So humor isn't just about being funny, it's very much about our state of mind. And also how we process information.

When we look at humor as a purely functional tool, what it actually is, is a system for processing information. That's what it is, when you take out the comedic sense. And so it can also be used as a tool to be able to flip situations on their head and find perspective. So as a cognitive tool it can be used for individuals and organizations as well.
Chuck: Well much of what you do, and you did touch on this before, you focus on happiness. And that's something you can't just tell people to be. You can't just say, "Be happy!" People have to choose it or be in an environment where it breeds that. So how is your model used to engage workers to bring up, or focus on, happiness?
Stephanie: Yeah, so you said something here which is really important, that you can't just tell people to be happy, and I'm really passionate about that. And when I do go out an talk about happiness, there's a couple of points that I think are really important. And one is that chasing happiness will make you unhappy, which people always look at me with a bit of a funny look when I say that because I'm meant to be someone who is an expert in this and promotes it. Which I do, fully wholeheartedly, but I also promote a balance. And happiness is something that's not fluffy. So chasing happiness will make you unhappy, and also avoiding unhappy events will not make you happy. And there's two really important points to kind of put as a facet.

And then what we've done over the past five, six years at Laughology is really understood what skills that we need to implement in organizations to help individuals flourish. And when you get individuals flourishing, you'll can an organization flourishing. So we've done lots of research in a variety of organizations and cross-examined some of the outcomes of that with academic research. And there seems to be five themes that come out every time. And when I talk about themes these are the names that we've called these things that help leverage happiness in organizations.
And they seem to be...so, confidence. So giving people confidence to be able to choose what they do to a certain degree and giving them the confidence to have autonomy in what they do and make decisions in organizations. But also the individual in an organization having confidence, and it's kind of a loop. The more you give confidence to someone and the more you perceive them to have the ability, the more their confidence grows. So it's about self-efficiency, it's about self-working, and it's about having the freedom to choose.
And then you've got also positive relationships. So in organizations you do get people who spend a lot of time together and people who are thrown together in an organization. So really understanding how you can leverage from those positive relationships and help people with the skill set to make that happen, but also create an environment where people can enjoy each other's company if they want to. Where they have break-out bases to be able to talk when it's appropriate, to be able to laugh when it's appropriate. And within that, having an environment and a culture where people really feel cared for and loved. And "love" is one of those words that people don't necessarily associate with the corporate world, or with organizational development or engagement, but it's one of the essential things around positive relationships.

And I don't mean "love" as in going around hugging each other, but that real sense that my company cares for me, that there are people in this organization who I know who don't just care about what I'm doing but care about me as an individual. And we know that that absolutely leverages people's sense of belonging and sense of happiness.
And then alongside that, the third theme is support. So having support in organizations and knowing that you have a voice. And that's a big thing in internal comms. So one of things I always talk about in comms is not just talking at people, but hearing people as well. So that communication going both ways. But also giving support. So in the organization, is it set up for people to be able to support other people, other communities? Do they have a real sense of purpose in the work that they do? So it's not just about the every day, I'm doing something, I'm actually impacting on other human beings or other communities.
And then the other one is coping skills. That's really important, because life isn't about being happy all the time. Sometimes we have huge challenges in our life, and that's okay. And how we get through those challenges, so coping skills is about being optimistic, it's about looking for opportunities. But it's also about knowing when you need help and knowing where to access that. And we know that organizations that promote coping skills are more flexible to change, they're better at allowing people to go through challenges, their people are better at going through those challenges. So that's a really, really important one; resilience within that.
And then the other thing is continued personal development, but personal development that is purposeful to that individual. So again, so the individual feels like they're not just in the organization and a number in that organization, but they are developing themselves alongside the development of that organization so they are flourishing as an individual as well. And we've found that when we've leveraged those five things, and really understood what needs to be leveraged in terms of skill sets to help that happen, and right across the organization, that's when you get a real difference in how people feel and what I call "emotional capital" in an organization. So you get people fully engaged and happy to be in that environment.
Chuck: Well and as I've read through some of your writings and looked at your website, there was one particular point related to engagement that I think really represents one of the challenges with engagement, that I think really would help people understand maybe the struggles they have and it's this idea behind an internal event, and how these build up over time, and really impact our emotional state. So talk about what you mean by that.
Stephanie: So an internal event, as in an individual's internal event. Is that what you mean?
What can happen is we perceive everything in the world internally ourselves. So how that internal event is played out is very personal to us. And that will be based on our belief systems, our thoughts, our memories, and all those things that we have in our cognition and in our minds. And sometimes that internal event can be quite skewed, so messages that we're hearing from the external world or from an organization might just be skewed because we're seeing it differently or we're perceiving that information differently.

So part of how we communicate to organizations, to individuals, is about really understanding where they're at personally. You know, what is this message saying to them? And that really is where the role of the middle manager comes in. Because we can't do that for everybody, but middle managers can absolutely do that with their teams, about really building those relationships that I talked about, that are personal, that gets to know the individual, what ticks them, where they're at, where they're state of mind is at that moment in time. And that's when you can really start to make an impact on individuals and get messages through. And also understand how they land.
Chuck: Well and I think this really reminds me, the correlation I make, is an event I was at recently. A gentleman speaking talked about the tone that organizations use with employees. If they've always had a negative tone, and then all of a sudden you switch to something very positive, the employees aren't going to all of a sudden ignore the tone you had before and jump into this positive environment with both feet. They're going to be very cautious and careful and I think that's sort of that same build-up where it's going to take even more time.
Stephanie: Yeah, and that's a really good point, Chuck, because I think people think about an internal message or a comms message as a one-off thing, or even happiness or, you know, "Let's be positive," as a one day event. But it takes time and it takes a whole organizational strategy for them not to be aligned with what people actually perceive to be going on in that organization because their internal understanding of what's going is quite different. And so it is about how we communicate those messages on not just a one-off platform, but on a whole strategic cycle that includes everyone to be talking in the same way, delivering that message in the same way. So eventually people see that that is the way it's going to be and believe it as well through behaviors.
Chuck: You can throw as many cliches as you want at the word "change" and sayings about "change," and the [inaudible 00:17:44] but it's real, it's spectacular, change is out there. But I like that you suggest there are eight stages to this. So why don't you walk listeners, very quickly, through those eight stages?
Stephanie: Yeah, so I mean all eight stages are kind of a guide to any organization who are going through changes. And stage one is always what I call the mapping and understanding stage. So really get to know your organization, where you're at at the moment, and where you want to be. And the expectations around that, where you want to go, and the goals along the way, and really understanding the gaps. So when I talk about a map it's that kind of journey about where you are at now, and where you want to be. What is the difference between those two stages? And that leads us on to stage two, which is what I call the exploration stage, which is really using lots of insight, there might be diagnostics in there.

Talking to people I think is really, really important, having talking groups, so you find out really lots about that whole organization. And so you can really understand where the opportunities are for development, for leverage. And new stuff might come out of that, and that's where talking to lots of different people at lots of difference levels in the organization is important to engage everyone, because they might come up with some really great ideas actually of how they would like messages given to them, or some challenges where those messages might get blocked. So once you've done that and you've got your mapping stage, then you can really start to understand a process together, or a map together, about how this might look like.
And then I think it's really important to win hearts and minds. And by that I mean create a narrative, a story, that really engages people and gets people on board with this map. And share that with them, and do it in a way that's uplifting, that's fun, that includes some of the information that you got from people from that exploration stage.
And once you've won hearts and minds, then we go to the alignment stage, which is looking at the practices and processes and systems, so making sure that anything that you've got there needs to be aligned to help that map happen, to help that understanding of where you're going happen. And then make it easy for people to deliver the new ideas and behaviors. Because what you find with a lot of change is that they start the change process before they really understood what helps leverage that in every day things that people do.

So really talking to people on the front line will help to do that, because it might uncover an example of something that can't happen because this is still the way it's being done. So once you've got all that aligned, then you're ready to really design an inspiring program that will engage everyone and really get everyone involved with the vision and be fit for purpose. And again that might be including some people from every level in that process, each step of the way. So you get experts along with it but you also get your team from every level along with that design process so they're engaged.
And then once you've got that process and you've signed that off, it's about delivering something that will really inspire and deliver the tangibles but also develop individuals. And it's based on real behavior change, so you include in that things like action learning processes, you take people on a journey so they know at their level they're doing this, but they also know at the next level this is happening. So they know they're going to be supported in every step of the way. And change just doesn't happen overnight, you know as everyone knows, it does take a long time. So it's about constantly supporting people through that process and having a multi-faceted, multi-level process that might include mentors, coaches, training programs, action learning groups, continued events and updates so people know where they're at.
And then, once that's happened, it's really good to have what we call an "impact assessment." So again, a repeat of that, understanding the data, diagnostics, and insights, to see where you're at now. Look at some of the tangible changes, as well as any other feedback mechanisms that might be able to capture what people are really feeling, thinking, and whether there are any gaps. And then review that process in what we call the eight stage post-program review, and then it's almost going back to the beginning, and if you need to, going through that process again to make sure that you've caught everything that you've captured.

That people are feeling safe and supported throughout that whole process, and know that if they haven't got it the first time, there's an opportunity to be able to talk to someone, to revisit that learning, so it's not just a, "This is it, we get to your end of change and that's it." Because I think the challenge is when we look at change we think of it as a finite process, that it's got a start and an ending point, and it's just not the way...organizations now need to be constantly evolving, so they need to be constantly reviewing and going through that process and we need to have people who are flexible to be able to do that cognitively, but also being able to flexibly work, so divert to different things. So that's why going through that eight stages and revisiting it is really powerful stuff. Because you're not just saying, "We've got to the end stage and we're stopping, we're saying we're going to repeat this and check every single time that we're doing okay."
Chuck: And listeners might be thinking to themselves, "Stephanie, this all sounds great, this sounds wonderful, but how does it actually work inside an organization?" So if you can, talk about one of your successful client engagements where humor and the Laughology model were really embraced by the culture.
Stephanie: So one of the ones that's on our website, so people can actually visit this, is one of our case studies on a company which is International Nuclear Services. Now I like to talk about this one because people don't normally associate Laughology, laughter, and humor with nuclear services. But in any organization I think it's important to be treated as human beings in that organization, and everyone deserves to go to work and enjoy what they do, feel challenged, and feel engaged with it.

And so it was really an interesting and exciting project that we had at INS, because we could start from the very beginning really. They were going through quite a change where they were looking at going from a company that was traditionally very council-based, if you like, old-fashioned management style, and looking at how can they improve that, how can they update that? So we did a series of things, really actually going through that eight stage process.
So we did a lot of mapping in the first instance and looked at where people were at, and we got a group of people together because one of the first points was to really look at their vision and values. And that was one thing they knew they hadn't looked at for a number of years, and that people weren't even sure what they were anymore.

So we got a group of people across all levels, and we did some quite fun couple of days really about understanding what vision and values are, why they're important, and what are the vision and values of INS and what would they mean to everybody every day? So we did that and then the next stage was to communicate that out to the rest of the group, so we did that with internal comms with some messages on their message boards, but also what we did is we did an internal event.
So we worked then with the leadership team with how they're going to deliver those vision and values. And the leadership team...we worked with them a lot around their way of communicating. Most of them were brilliantly intelligent and very scientific in their background, so very detailed-driven. But we know in comms that when you're communicating a message that it needs to be inspiring and uplifting and not as much detail. So we worked a lot on their individual communication style.
And then also, alongside that we also set up what we call "mini-updates," that every single team within Nuclear Services, of which there are several, started to do their internal updates about what they were doing. One of the things we wanted to do is get the organization seeing themselves as a whole rather than these silos. And we worked with the update people who were in charge of those, so the managers, the leaders, on how they communicated as well. And what was really good was the updates were open to everyone in the organization, so people could actually go and hear these updates in a room.

And they were only like 15 minute updates. Or they could go online and listen in to these update as well, so they were live. So you then really got a sense of what was going on in the whole organization, so you're starting to really get communication right through.
And then we did a series of training programs with managers, and their middle managers around their behavior and how they are with people. And then we also worked with another organization around creativity and creative thinking, and they really delivered some sessions that really got people thinking differently around that.

And then we brought it all back to the beginning, and the leaders had mentoring alongside everything they were doing, and some leaderships programs as well. And then it was about how that sustained in the organization, so how they sustained that level of communication and at that positive of a level as well. So looking at their internal updates, how often they do them, and helping them put plans together over the year of what that might look like.
And we worked with them over three years and there were some brilliant changes and we did some exciting things. So on some of the whole updates, we brought in fish and chips for them as well, so they could have lunch and have fish and chips while also getting an update on the information. The way we delivered messages was really quite different. We also delivered a presentation skills course throughout the whole organization as well so people really understood what it meant to present information in a different way.

And so there was lots and lots of things that went on there, and we really did focus on the positive relationships in the organization with managers and leaders, and having the leaders see more as well. So looking at more really where they were, how they went about the organization, where they sat in the organization, so all those little things that got people thinking differently about what their support network was, who they could speak to, and when they could speak to them.
Every single person did go through a personal development process, so they put together what they call their "PDPs," which is their personal development plan. And then people looked at where they personally thought they needed to develop within their role. And then we looked at engagement scores at the end of that, and there was a real change in the way the people were engaging with the organization and in the way people were seeing the leaders, which was one of the shifts we were looking for. Because when we looked at, in the first stage, people's understanding of the leaders and their thoughts around that, it wasn't as positive as we wanted it to be. So one of the real shifts was how they saw their leaders, and that was a real positive change.
Chuck: Now what would you say, because a lot of times there can be some naysayers in internal comms world, and a lot of times you'll see communicators will opt themselves, and therefore their organizations, out of a new program or a new plan. But what would you say to a communicator who says, "There's no way this would ever work in my organization?"
Stephanie: Well, gosh, there's so much out there now around fixed, engrossed mindset. If we come at something with, "It's not going to work," then it really won't. If we come at something with, "It will work," then it will. And what I always say to people, because I often get asked the question, when I'm speaking at conferences, "So how can I convince my manager or my exec that this is the right thing to do? How can I convince them that this actually does impact on everything that we do? Why happiness is important or why humor is important?" And my simple answer is, "Ask your exec if they want a workforce who's stressed, unhappy, or disengaged, or ask them if they want a workforce that's happy, engaged, and has resilience and coping skills." And I always know the answer that I'll get.
Then the other question is, "What are they actually doing about it?" And we do really need to look at the effectiveness of people and the relationship of that to their well-being and their happiness in organizations. And if you're not doing that, you're not only letting your organization down, you're impacting on those human beings. And the thing that drives us as human beings is how we feel and our wellness.
And if you want more research into that, or you want hard facts into that, there's loads of research out there that proves conclusively that human beings work better when they're happy. And it kind of makes sense. You have human beings who want to be somewhere, who enjoy what they do. And I don't mean that everything is easy, because easy isn't always enjoyable. I mean, that they have enough challenge, that they feel challenged, that they feel that they are moving forward. Yes, they may have hard days, that's okay. Yes, they might get things wrong, but they have the skills to be able to get through that, make choices, and develop themselves alongside the organization. And if you have a CEO or leader who says, "No, that's not what I want for my organization," I would really question about where they are in that organization and what they're doing leading people.
Chuck: Well those are great, all great answers Stephanie. Why don't you direct listeners to where they can learn more about Laughology?
Stephanie: So they can go to laughology.co.uk, and there's lots of information on there. We also have some free resources on the site from time to time. And there's also the Laughology book, so people can buy that. It's on Amazon. It's called "Laughology: The Science of Laughter to Improve Your Life." It's a bit more of a personal development book, but there's lots of insights in there about how you can use humor and happiness in organizations as well.
Chuck: What's a final piece of parting advice that you want to share with listeners? So obviously we have a lot of communicators and internal communicators that listen, but also business owners and even some very small business owners that are a part of this, so what's some advice you want to share with them?
Stephanie: Base your business on happiness, and I don't just mean the fluffiness of it, but really understand what happiness means to your business and what happiness means to your customers. So it's different to every business and every customer and the example I always use is, you know, you can still deliver happiness to your customers in terms of if you run a funeral parlor, but that will look very, very different to if you own a fleet of cars that you hire out. But what is that happiness to that individual customer? Really understand what that is, and that's what will make your organization and business fly.
Chuck: Great advice, Stephanie, and I want to thank you again for being a guest on ICology and sharing your story and advice and lessons learned. ICology is a listening post for communicators, a place for them to hear stories from professionals like you who can inspire them to be better communicators, but at the same time we can all be better communicators. Please follow ICology on Twitter, @LearnICology, to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news. And please always subscribe to ICology on your preferred podcast platform. Just go there, search "ICology," hit "Subscribe," and make sure that you pick up on any new shows. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening.