Meetings in the professional workplace are an unavoidable reality. If you don't have time to read all the advice on conducting meetings published over the decades (and who does?), do not despair. As a public service, I will sum it up pretty succinctly for you:
No, you may scrub meetings and workspaces with antiseptics all you want, but employees will all persist, stubbornly and hideously, as humans. A wise leader knows to capitalize on our shared humanity to construct a healthier and more productive workplace by allowing and encouraging (and never insisting upon!) levity. For, it is a fact that the team that can laugh together can work together.
To be sure, humor can be a risky thing in the workplace. A leader who is not confident in his or her ability to crack a joke should not try, but that does not preclude allowing others to trip the light comedic. For those who fear they are humor challenged, I recommend conducting a simple "humor audit," which will help gauge your inclination to laugh.
Of course, certain rules of decorum and decency must never be compromised. Humor too often leads, intentionally or unintentionally, to sharp divisions between insiders and outsiders, so humor in the workplace is best if inclusive. And humor should land within the parameters that are generally accepted in your specific workplace's culture or in the culture at large, which means that a budding jokester needs to have a good idea what those shared parameters are. Some workplaces may be more tolerant of lighthearted irreverence, for instance. Others, may demand a certain decorum with strict attention paid to the niceties of proper respect, the hierarchical strictures of subordination, and the astringent mores of Victorian stoicism. In other words, some places will be lively and fun and others deadly dull.
And the humor should never be demeaning to individuals or groups, including individuals and groups not represented at the meeting or in that workplace. Cracking a joke about a colleague who is participating in a meeting or about an identity group represented during the meeting can be rude, alienating, and at least borderline bullying. Cracking a joke about someone not in the meeting or an identity group not represented is almost certainly crude, cowardly, and unduly cruel. Whatever the case, such attempts at humor are potentially discriminatory. If the moral imperative toward decency is not enough to maintain order, everyone should be painfully conscious that inappropriate humor is not only offensive, but it is often legally actionable as well.
In addition, humor in the workplace should not become a stand-up routine with one individual cracking up the room. And, if you are the boss attempting this comedic act, just go ahead and assume that every titter from every person in the room has effectively been coerced, a sure way to sow seeds of discontent. If your position allows no hecklers, why the heck are you on stage? Not convinced? Simply chew on this phrase: "enforced fun and levity on command." Mmm. Delightful.
Whatever your role in the workplace, if you fantasize about standing in front of an exposed brick wall, a spotlight in your eyes and microphone in your hand, you best not test your material during a business meeting. And bosses beware, if only one or two people are cracking wise during meetings, that can be a sign of dysfunctional stress even if everyone is laughing. The fact is that your jokester is just trying to break the tension that your meeting is generating. I know. I have been that lone clown.
Alternately, there are ways to open up the floor for everyone to participate, but doing so will require conscious effort and sharing the spotlight. Even the seemingly humorless can shine in these settings.
Personally, I have been told that my sense of humor can be a tad dry and, well, sardonic, so I have to read the room carefully. Needless to say, my reading comprehension in such situations can be limited, so recently, I took this cool Humor Typology Test created by the authors of the forthcoming book Humor, Seriously. The test plots your humor style using four categories:
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.