Developing your humor skills for project success

 

Alfonso Bucero, Managing Partner, BUCERO PM Consulting

Abstract

If you want to be successful as a project manager, or to make a positive impact on your projects, you need to develop your humor skills. Your success will depend on your ability to influence your project stakeholders positively. This presentation will help you to develop your humor skills in a practical way. In this presentation we advocate for the use of humor and fun in a complete project manager's toolkit. We do so because we believe it is effective, productive, and memorable. We are not offering an exhaustive study and description of humor nor can we prescribe how to create fun in every situation. What we can do is share our commitment to creating fun working environments, with the hope that others may validate and renew their commitment to the same or else come to a new understanding of the need for “lightening up” some of the serious work of project management.

Introduction

Humor plays a vital role in getting a person to laugh at situations that may seem overwhelming. One cannot truly laugh and still retain anger or hostility. When a person laughs at a joke, he or she agrees with the basic premise of that joke whether it is a one-liner or a short story. A joke is often a play on words to give a double meaning to a statement. It is seldom the denotation of the words that are the joke, but it is the connotation or some informal understanding that makes the humor. Those understanding both the denotation and connotation or informal understanding will laugh if they agree with the joke. We often say that we are not creating humor but are just reporting news in a different way. In a project environment, a person may use humor to “report the facts” of a situation as well.

Humor can change the attitude of individuals and provide a healthy, productive atmosphere when used properly. There are situations that clearly do not lend themselves to humor, such as when there is tragedy or the death of a loved one. Business situations, however, often lend themselves to humor that changes the way a person looks at the environment. I (Bucero) managed several projects outside my place of residence and needed to use humor in a daily basis. Every day I promise my team members to tell them the joke of the day, and I did it at lunchtime. It was a way to free people of stress and do it together as a team. However, it may not always apply in the same way depending on culture.

Humor Effects for the Project Manager

A good humored, creative environment is essential for most businesses to succeed. If the atmosphere is tense, unfriendly, “toxic,” or even hostile, the productivity of the performers will most likely be very low. Everyone is in a guarded state, communication is limited, and the organization suffers greatly. The same situation applies to the project manager and his or her team. Without a little humor, the team may lose interest, avoid building relationships, and focus more on what their tasks are than on the objectives of the project. A project delivered by a team of people who do not get along will probably face many more challenges and have great difficulty overcoming obstacles than the project with a team that works well together and blends in a little fun.

The complete project manager or leader is well advised to add more fun into the workplace. For some this is not easy to do. Many people do not make a connection between the words fun and work. Fun is not something that comes with a job. It is added gradually and eventually can become a part of the job or even the culture of an organization. The use of the word “fun” itself can be a problem for some managers—if that is the case, try “enjoyment.” An environment that includes a little fun or enjoyment can attract highly skilled people, create effective teams faster, and produce superior results.

Different cultures have very different approaches to humor. While most humor involves elements of incongruity and surprise, joke structure can vary. For example, American humor is very direct, building to the punch line then delivering it with great emphasis, and reinforcing it to be sure that everyone knows when to laugh. English humor is more indirect, giving the audience the components of the joke and leaving them to make the final connection, and then they laugh if and when they get it. It's also important that humor should be relevant, related to the topic in hand. There's nothing worse than starting your project review meeting with an irrelevant joke to break the ice.

Soft Skill Effects from Humor

Project manager humor has effects on all the soft project management skills, like:

1. Communication

People pay more attention toward speakers who use a humorous style. Humor improves information retention. I managed a project outside my city of residence for two long years with a team of 150 people. When we arrived to the customer site every Monday, some of them said: “Oh Alfonso, today is Monday, Friday is very far away....” I usually replied as follows, “Don't worry, it is 9:00 am in the morning and in a while we will have a nice breakfast, after breakfast we will work a couple of hours and go for lunch, after lunch it will be almost Tuesday.” People laughed because of my reaction; however, I perceived that they appreciated my comments.

2. Team Management

Team building phase humor is a non-invasive way to test relations and gives people that use it a parachute in case of bad responses. A positive response boosts the use of humor in other team members, speeding up the socialization process. A joke can start a chain of humorous interpretations, giving the sensation of consensus among team members. Humor represents a shared interpretation of events that highlights similarities among team members and creates a sense of equality. I tell jokes to my teams; however, I have observed different reactions from people depending on their cultures. We have tried using humor in team building exercises. Once, when starting work with a new team we put together a “team bonding session.” The goal of the exercise was for the team members to get acquainted by answering a few questions set forth by the project manager:

  • What are your professional strengths?
  • What are your professional weaknesses?
  • What are you hobbies?
  • Are you married/single?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Are there any skeletons in your closet?

For most of the questions team members were quite serious when describing their situation, but when it came to the skeletons in the closet, the team really started laughing and enjoying their time together. It ended up being a good exercise with team members getting to know each other better and sharing laughs, which really opened up new discussions. The spontaneous use of humor may serve as an indicator of personal or organizational well-being.

3. Leadership

Good leaders are often humor appreciators rather than humor initiators. Leaders that are humor initiators have a task oriented leadership style. Leaders that are humor appreciators have a relationship oriented leadership style. It is also possible that bad leaders may hide part of their inability by means of humor. One leader at a corporate project office started off each staff meeting with the letters B M F at the top of the agenda. He reiterated the affirmation, “We are here to Be productive, Make a difference, and have Fun.” This sets the stage as both a vision and set of expectations that all will be achieved.

4. Conflict management

Humor in avoidance conflict resolution style: The coping functions of humor permits a person to lower the emotional involvement related to a situation and to change the dominant perspective on the situation.

Humor in confronting conflict resolution style: Humor, mostly in the form of metaphors, shows the situation under different perspectives, thus permitting people to deal with a broader set of alternatives.

Humor in smoothing conflict resolution style: Humor can be used to augment the positiveness of a situation, playing down differences and thus attempting to create a common ground.

Humor in compromising conflict resolution style: Humor can be used to convey ambiguous messages to express ideas that, if communicated directly, would offend others.

Humor in forcing conflict resolution style: Humor can express hostility and aggressiveness. Embedding aggressive messages in a humorous form is perceived as less risky for the sender and less hostile for the receiver but leaves intact the meaning.

5. Problem solving and decision making

External humorous stimuli can positively affect problem solving and creativity. Humor lowers tension and improves divergent thinking. In decision making, humor can reveal a negative effect related to the perception of risk. Humor tends to lower the importance of the discussed topic, thus, risky activities can be underestimated. The effect on hope and motivation may also play a negative role in these situations.

6. Stress

Humor, especially in the outcome of laughing, helps in reducing the negative effects of stress. Humor also has a positive effect on difficult situations because it produces a cognitive shift that moves people to be less stressful and less emotional. However, this can be dangerous when the situation may cause risks. It is an obligation for the project manager to have a plan to make project activities happen. Usually the plan is not what is going to happen but what we want to happen. Changes are there, so you, as a project manager, need to prioritize, especially how to manage time. Managing stress includes the need to prioritize but also finding time to stop, relax and think about how to be more effective.

7. Motivation

Humor can influence sense of hope. Humor leads to a greater sense of self-efficacy in dealing with specific problems or stressful events. Humor helps people to be focused on positive thinking instead of failures and problems. At the same time humor facilitates open mind thinking to generate new ideas and deal with problems, producing an increase in motivation.

In a project I managed in Spain for a telecom operator, I observed that the customer always focused on project problems when celebrating monthly project review meetings. The project could not progress because of excessive criticism and negativity from that customer. So I decided to take action. At the next monthly review meeting, I asked for a break in the middle of the meeting. I treated them to a coffee and told them some jokes regarding the latest news of the day. In a few minutes I got them laughing. The situation turned from negative to calm. That way people were more relaxed after the break, and we started to think about alternatives to solve the issues and problems. That practice does not work all the time, but it was very helpful for me in that situation.

8. Negotiation

Humor increases the likeability of a communicator, and people with more likeability have greater influential power. Humor lowers the perceived importance of the object of the negotiation, possibly leading to greater concessions. In negotiations humor can thus play a double role, depending on the part one takes.

Hard Skills Effects

Hard skills need to be learned and then applied. Inserting humor aids in learning hard skills. Incorporating humor into lecture materials improves listeners’ attention, increasing their ability to make connections between concepts or find inconsistencies and leading to greater information retention. Humor is strongly preferable in self-education activities, as it also improves readers’ attention. Approaching the application of hard skills using humor tends to shift focus from the specific methodology to the way it is used. Using a funny approach is especially helpful during the introduction of new methodologies.

Remco Meisner from The Netherlands advises that “Humor allows project managers to tell customers things that must not be said, but nevertheless ought to be.” He goes on to say, “Humor is to be used in well proportioned quantities and in selected situations. I once made fun to a group of bankers, following a very successful project board meeting: “Gentlemen, I think we have solved all of our problems in the last 45 minutes. What can we do about that?” This caused a full disconnect for all of these managers. They simply did not understand the joke. It confused them and spoiled the accomplishment.” Make sure humor is relevant to the lesson material.

Research

Research has shown health benefits of laughter ranging from strengthening the immune system to reducing food cravings to increasing one's threshold for pain. There is even an emerging therapeutic field known as humor therapy to help people heal more quickly. Humor also has several important stress relieving benefits.

Stress Management Benefits of Laughter:

Hormones: Laughter reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), dopamine and growth hormone. It also increases the level of health-enhancing hormones like endorphins and neurotransmitters. Laughter increases the number of antibody-producing cells and enhances the effectiveness of T cells. All this means a stronger immune system, as well as fewer physical effects of stress.

Physical Release: Have you ever felt like you “have to laugh or I’ll cry?” Have you experienced the cleansed feeling after a good laugh? Laughter provides a physical and emotional release.

Internal Workout: A good belly laugh exercises the diaphragm, contracts the abs and even works out the shoulders, leaving muscles more relaxed afterward. It even provides a good workout for the heart.

Distraction: Laughter brings focus away from anger, guilt, stress and negative emotions in a more beneficial way than other mere distractions.

Perspective: Studies show that our response to stressful events can be altered by whether we view something as a “threat” or a “challenge.” Humor can give us a more lighthearted perspective and help us view events as “challenges,” thereby making them less threatening and more positive.

Social Benefits of Laughter: Laughter connects us with others. Also, laughter is contagious, so if you bring more laughter into your life, you can most likely help others around you to laugh more and realize these benefits as well.

How to Use Laughter

Laughter is one of our all-time favorite stress management strategies because it is free, convenient, and beneficial in so many ways. More laughter may happen using some of the following strategies:

  • T.V. and Movies: There is no shortage of laughter opportunities from the entertainment industry, both at the theater and in the aisles of video stores, as well as at home with T.V. comedies. Show video clips at team meetings to break from routine and stimulate different thinking.
  • Laugh with Friends: Going to a movie or comedy club with friends is a great way to get more laughter. The contagious effects of laughter may mean people laugh more than they otherwise would have during the show, plus they have jokes to reference at later times.
  • Find Humor In Your Project: Instead of complaining about project's frustrations, try to laugh about them. If something is so frustrating or depressing it is ridiculous, realize that you could “look back on it and laugh.” Think of how it will sound as a story you could tell to your friends, and then see if you can laugh about it now.
  • More on Having Fun: See the additional suggestions in this chapter on laughing more and having fun in your projects and in your life.

Make Fun a Priority

Project management humor is an important asset for the project manager. Consider the following joke: Three men, a project manager, a software engineer, and a hardware engineer, are helping out on a project. About midweek they decide to walk up and down the beach during their lunch hour. Halfway up the beach, they stumble upon a rusted old lamp. As they rub the lamp and a genie appears and says “Normally I would grant you three wishes, but since there are three of you, I will grant you each one wish.”

The hardware engineer went first. “I would like to spend the rest of my life living in a huge house in St. Thomas with no money worries.” The genie granted him his wish and sent him off to St. Thomas.

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The software engineer went next. “I would like to spend the rest of my life living on a huge yacht cruising the Mediterranean with no money worries.” The genie granted him his wish and sent him off to the Mediterranean.

Last, but not least, it was the project manager's turn. “And what would your wish be?” asked the genie. “I’m the project manager and I want both my team members back after lunch,” replied the project manager.

A joke like this is very useful to open a presentation or a meeting. It sets the context in terms of the players, aspirations, and thought processes. Humor in business is not about clowning. It is about demonstrating that you are a warm, responsive, intelligent and considerate person. We want people working in our project teams, we need people with energy, passion and enthusiasm, and we love people. We believe that staying positive may well increase happiness.

Another example about using humor derives from our project management experiences, wherein we have identified top 10 reasons why some upper managers do not want their people using project management in organizations:

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The Benefits from Humor

In today's society, stress is becoming a big factor in many people's lives. Some are working under difficult deadlines that they do not set but are rather set by upper management or people who pile on pressure to meet deadlines. Others are having difficulty mixing professional with private lives. All this can put more and more pressure on people who feel the overwhelming pressure and end up in a meltdown, whether professionally or personally.

Some benefits of humor are that it reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale and helps communicate difficult messages. Some managers in organizations are becoming more aware about how stress can lower the probability of success. Some organizations are offering recreational activities at work to eliminate stress, often with high costs. It is important for organizations to deal with stress in the work environment, and it is equally important to examine the costs that come with dealing with that stress. By encouraging employees to stay positive and laugh at work, companies can minimize stress and diminish the affect stress can have on people's lives. We believe it is important to look at the benefits of humor for people and what we all experience in our minds when keeping a positive attitude towards our daily professional and personal challenges. Personal experience again helps to illustrate these benefits.

Some years ago my father got ill, and he was diagnosed with lung cancer. At that same time I joined a multinational company as a project manager. I couldn't give up because I had a family and I needed to move forward. I tried to stay with my father every weekend, some of the time without sleeping (he could not sleep well). The rest of the week I managed the project outside home (450 kms away). My father always smiled every time I met him on the weekends. He always encouraged me to continue managing the project. I remember well his words about working in organizations. He said, “When you are young you must fly and learn, be focused on people, take care of the details, you will be able to gain your credibility as a professional.” I’ll never forget his words. He used to tell jokes and stories, and I inherited that skill from him.

It seemed that he was not conscious about dying. After he passed away, I was more conscious about how he did not want to damage me. He always thought in positive terms and smiled when I joined him. I will remember my whole life all those days talking to my father and how he helped me to put up with my stress as a son. I knew he was dying step by step, but he never complained. He passed away smiling and loving people; he was an example for the whole family. I have experienced stressful situations in projects but most of them pale in comparison to the example set by my father. The first thing I remind myself is about the amount of blessings I have in my life every day. Smile and never give up. This attitude makes me happier and also makes for happier teams.

1. Psychological benefits

When we laugh we feel good. The body relaxes and we are able to think in more positive and constructive ways. Some people even think that humor enables people to have more open minds, leading to creative thinking and making us more able to solve the problems that stand before us. Humor and laughter also increase people's ability to cope with stress. If we are able to view our problems with a less serious perspective, we may be able to distance ourselves a bit from them, often enabling more options to be discovered and providing us with a good way to handle the problems.

2. Medical benefits

Research in the medical field has shown that patients can cope better with their sickness if they keep a positive attitude towards the healing process. It is reported that nurses that have a humorous outlook help patients during difficult periods. The same applies in project management. Projects can be big or small with project teams that come in various sizes and shapes. If the project manager is happy, shows up to work with a smile, that joy then spreads to the team. If the project team is in good spirits the chances of project success are greatly increased.

Think Differently

Project managers need to be aware of how the team and each team member is feeling. If one senses all is not well, it is important to make adjustments in order to keep momentum going and team members motivated. Using humor and laughter can be very helpful to the project manager in such situations as stated in this paper. Being able to see things in a humorous, and possibly unexpected, way can open up new ideas or discussions leading to exciting end results. We all want to work hard and give it our best, but we also want to have fun while doing it. We are spending more and more time with our co-workers so it is very important for us to be able to share a good laugh with them, on a daily basis. Keeping this in mind will only help complete project managers to achieve the ultimate in project results, in a positive way.

A good way to do this, especially when confronted with a stressful or challenging situation, is to say “I can think differently about this.” Over the years I (Englund) have invoked this phrase many times, and it has changed my life. When a harsh criticism is expressed, instead of responding defensively, say (to self) “I can think differently about this,” and say (to the other person) “Thank you, you just made my day.” When someone said to Alfonso that he would not be able to get something done, I heard him respond with “I love you, too.” Defensive responses are seldom effective. A humorous, unexpected, and positive response is utterly disarming to adversaries. In these situations, he who loses his cool first loses. A wise manager shared that advice with me (Englund) just after I lost my cool. At that point I definitely had to think differently and start looking for a new job.

Knowledge Management Lessons

Every project generates changes, and we experience constant changes in organizations, again and again and again for many different reasons. Organizations are composed of different people with different levels of power within the organization. We want to share with you three humorous lessons learned from organizations when managing projects. We hope these lessons help you when overcoming changes. In the following story, the animals illustrate various project stakeholders:

A buzzard was sitting in a tree, doing nothing all day. A rabbit saw him and asked, “May I sit with you doing nothing all day?” The buzzard answered him: “Sure, why not?” Then the rabbit sat down on the ground, under the tree, and relaxed. Suddenly a fox appeared... then he jumped on the rabbit and ate it.

Lesson 1: In order to pass all day, doing nothing in a project, you must be positioned…very, very high in the organization.

A turkey talked to a bull. “I would love to be able to go up the tree, said the turkey, but I do not have enough energy.” “OK, please test my dung,” replied the bull. “It is full of nutrients.” The turkey ate a little bit of dung; it got enough strength to achieve the first branch of the tree. Next day he went up to the second branch. After two weeks, he was proud to reach the top of the tree. Very soon a farmer appeared ... and shot him.

Lesson 2: Dung can move up to the top, but it cannot stay there.

A bird was flying South to pass the winter. It was so cold that, frozen, it fell down to the ground. While it was on the ground a cow passed by and let fall some dung over it… Inside the dung, the bird felt so warm. It was so happy that it started singing. Hearing the bird singing, a cat approached. Discovering the bird inside the dung, the cat ate it quickly.

So the final lessons, applicable to organizations in which project managers manage projects, are as follows:

  1. Not everyone who drops dung on you is your enemy.
  2. Not everyone who removes you from the dung is your friend.
  3. When you are in deep dung…you should keep your mouth shut!

We have found this story relevant to many projects we have managed. Sometimes these scenarios happen and probably you, as a project manager, cannot avoid and need to live with them.

Summary

A project manager's toolkit is more complete when fun is on the agenda, and every day includes laughter.

  • Life in general and projects specifically seem to flow better and accomplish more when people have fun doing whatever they are doing.
  • Humor may be experienced through the telling of jokes but also may happen through paying attention and making the commitment to the moments in projects that deserve a good laugh.
  • Think differently about various moments encountered throughout a project. Seek a fun path that lightens the load while remaining on target.

Bucero, A. (2010). Today is a Good Day. Ontario, Canada: Multimedia Publications.

Bucero, A. (2010, August, 12). Every project manager is born happy [Project Connections Blog]. Retrieved from www.projectconnections.com

Bucero, A. (2010, June, 14). Associate with positive professionals [Project Connections Blog]. Retrieved from www.projectconnections.com

Bucero, A. (2012, December, 26). How to influence decisions. [Project Connections Blog]. Retrieved from www.projectconnections.com

Englund, R. L., & Bucero, A. (2012). The complete project manager: Integrating people, organizational, and technical skills. Tysons Corner, VA: Management Concepts Press.

Graham, R. J., & Englund, R. L. (2004). Creating an environment for successful projects (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.

© 2013, Randall Englund & Alfonso Bucero
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans - USA

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