Do you take your humor seriously?

Daniel Robin
Daniel Robin & Associates
Santa Cruz, California

Part 1: Measuring Mirth
Business people are obsessed with measurement. Measurement creates the illusion of control. Control, as we all know, is a popular substitute for power. Power, as any fool could tell you, is where all the fun is. (With power you get to do stuff nobody else can.) Therefore, if you want to have fun, measure things.

In case you're not totally convinced that measuring things is fun, try measuring your HQ—that's your "Humor Quotient." Unlike your IQ, a high HQ gives you all the fun with none of the responsibility. If you tell your boss you have an exceptionally high HQ, they won't know what you're talking about, so you can get away with being weird in the service of entertaining yourself and your colleagues.

What would you rather have: an awesome bottom line and a company of miserable people or a respectable bottom line and a bunch of goofballs? Tough choice, huh? Fortunately, if we measure our HQ, we don't even have to make this decision—measurement bypasses all the things that business people really need to know and provides hard data instead.

Upbeat versus Beaten Up. Although your boss may be wondering what HQ has to do with productivity and improving that bottom line, I can assure you that science and common sense are both on our side. Humor can work miracles, gets the job done with less wear and tear, relieves tension, keeps things light and upbeat. Until now, however, it couldn't be quantified!

When stress is high, with pressure whacking your sensibilities, when situations are at their most uncomfortable...what works best? To tighten up and charge ahead or to loosen up and have a laugh? In prior articles (see our website, keyword: Humor), we've shown that the ability to laugh despite difficult odds happens to be a master coping and leadership skill. Furthermore, scientific studies of creativity and innovation have shown that laughing first (and second and last) is the best way to solve any problem.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, "Laughing, like elation, seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely, noticing relationships that might have eluded them otherwise...."

What's Your Humor Quotient? What, exactly, is your HQ? It's a way to measure on-the-job mirth, merriment, and madness (the good kind of madness, so-called "crazy wisdom"—not the stuff that gets you arrested or put on idiot detail). HQ asks several juicy questions:

  • Do you have a sense of humor? What portion of it are you now using?
  • Is your workload's gravity outweighing your levity, making you unavailable for humor?
  • Do you have humor skills? There are at least three: rapport, respectful boundaries, and handling your inner critic.

Workplace humor isn't about telling jokes, pies in the face, whoopee cushions. Humor is a tool, not a weapon. Am I suggesting that you cancel your joke-of-the-day subscription or stop posting Dilbert cartoons? No. It's all good. And there's lots of creative ways to make sure you have fun on the job without being seen as unprofessional. Indeed, some of the most successful people in business carry their sense of humor like a raincoat—they always have it ready, sometimes they lay it down for others, and it doubles as a flack jacket.

The important thing is to show that you have a sense of humor and you're not afraid to use it. Let your unique sense of humor give you access to the things that are most important at work and in life: pure enjoyment, a sense of meaning, ease and relaxation.

Part 2: Taking Your Humor Seriously
Humor isn't merely about having fun (often at other people's expense), it's about expressing the soul's desire to fly. Yeah, it's hard to get paid when your soul is flying around the office, but if you can access that warm, fuzzy place inside you—where seriousness can melt into silliness, when meticulous order and the "best-laid plans" can suddenly turn to mush—then you're onto something!

I've found that most business people would trade feeling the weight of things undone for a good belly laugh any day, but we run aground somewhere between concerns about harassment (or the fear of getting slapped) and mustering the courage to humiliate oneself in front of coworkers.

Your Humor Quotient and How to Raise It. Have you noticed that you can be in the middle of the most stressful, infuriating situation, and just on the other side of it, just around the proverbial corner, is a huge laugh attack waiting to land on your head? If your HQ is below your standards, chances are so is your job satisfaction (dangling right above, say, tragic predictability). Use what follows to discover how you can feel light enough to escape the gravitational pull of workplace drama and absurdity.

Assign a rating from 1 to 10 for each of these HQ factors:

1. Your Sense of Humor. If you lost yours at your last performance review or when your company reorganized and you had to hide it in your desk drawer, perhaps this would be a good time to take it out again, and use it to torture your colleagues. Otherwise the joke's on you. 1 = sense of humor is missing in action; 10 = laugh or die trying.

2. Your Availability for Humor - if you have a manageable workload, resiliently bounce back from problems, stress, and conflict, and are passionately committed to having fun, you get a 10 for availability. If not, what you have is an opportunity to notice and adjust what's interfering.

For most of my clients, this factor weighs in most heavily. If you agreed to a "contract" with goals that make you want to lay down on your office floor, there's not much chance you'll maintain an overarching commitment to having fun. Or if you get caught up in your drawers looking for an escape hatch, that's not good. Solution: Recontract around a comprehensive set of goals that are achievable, at least 50% believable, and conducive to doing your best work. Accept nothing less. Be sure to include both developmental and maintenance goals, so all that you do can be recognized and contained. 1 = stuck and stressed, 5 = stretched, 10 = able to get stupid without provocation.

3. Essential Humor Skills - We'll highlight three:

  • How you handle your inner critic (the voice in your head that's telling you to "stop reading this and get back to work!"). Give yourself a 1 if you don't criticize yourself enough or consider that voice your enemy; 10 = finding the positive intention that your critical voice represents, using it to your advantage.

  • Rapport: How well do you take measure of other people's HQ reality? 1 = what "other people"!? ... 10 = reading body language accurately, paying exquisite attention to subtle, non-verbal cues. Hint: If you've heard comments like "If you tell me another joke, I'm going to kill you!" or "You just don't know when to quit, do you?" deduct a few points.

  • Respectful boundaries with humor: Give yourself a 10 if you take appropriate risks but back off or immediately apologize if you step over a line; you get a 1 if you don't have the wit to notice when you've gone "off sides."

Add it all up and you've got a snapshot of your humor potential. If you scored high, you can laugh all the way back to your office. If you scored low, this could be serious: in extreme cases, a lack of levity can actually cause humoroids.

Daniel Robin is President of Daniel Robin & Associates (, an international training and consulting firm that has helped people communicate, collaborate, and learn since 1985. He can be reached at (831) 761-0700 or

(c) 2007 Daniel Robin & Associates; all rights reserved worldwide