“So you’re saying I’m a clown? I make you laugh. I’m here to amuse you?”
~ Tommy DeVito, Goodfellas
Why don’t more people list “sense of humor” as one of their strengths on a resume? In our opinion, managers and employees who could make people laugh were also some of the most successful. In this episode, Frank and Ian look at the benefits of humor in the workplace.
In this episode:
- Using humor to differentiate yourself in a crowded field
- The difference between a fun manager and a clown
- When humor DOESN’T work
- How to use gallows humor in tough times
- Self-deprecation as an art form
- Using humor to dodge difficult questions
- Humor in delivering difficult feedback
Watch the episode here:
Listen to the podcast here:
Is Humor A Business Skill?
Ask anyone what they value in a spouse, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, best friends or family, surely on that list, you’re going to find, “They make me laugh.” We love people that make us smile, that keep things light. If you think about your best managers and you were to make a list, I would venture to guess that they kept things light and made you laugh, and made business seem a little less serious than those that you didn’t appreciate as much. If you look at any resume, when someone highlights their skills, accomplishments and special talents, no one ever puts a sense of humor as a business skill.
Frank and I, in this episode, venture out to figure out is humor a business skill? We look at when to use humor, when not to use humor, how to be self-deprecating, what’s the difference between picking on someone above you versus picking on someone below you. The difference between being witty and being a clown. We look at the difference between keeping it light in the office and moving over into bullying. This is a fun episode. We talk about some of our funniest managers and how they used it as a super skill. We hope you enjoy it. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do it. If you haven’t given us a rating, we’d appreciate it.
Ian, you son of a bitch.
How’s it going?
I’m doing great. How are you?
I’m doing awesome. I hope you’re in a cheerful, humorous mood.
I am in a cheerful and humorous mood.
That’s good because we are talking about the role of humor in someone’s career. We’ll probably focus more on managers that we’ve known. When you look at any resume, when you look at LinkedIn or an application where people list business skills, they list all kinds of soft skills. Persuasiveness, time management, ability to be resilient. You never see anyone write, “I’m funny.” When I look at it, I don’t know how you see it, but I put a high value on people that can make me smile because life is short. I find it to be an underappreciated skill in business for those who can do it tactfully.
Do you remember the first time you realized you were funny in general?
I remember in ninth grade, I can make a group of people laugh. In my yearbook, many of the people wrote that I was funny. I didn’t consider myself funny. I didn’t grow up in a funny house. My mom and I talked about it. She was like, “I didn’t realize you were so funny or so humorous or your friends thought that about you.” It was the first time in my life where I gained a lot of confidence that wasn’t around sports. I had a lot of confidence around sports but I was always a little socially awkward.
Ninth grade is hard because you’re the youngest kid, and there’s a bunch of other things going on. I remember that gave me some confidence. As an older person, I also have looked back and realized you’re often drawn to funny people. There’s a big difference between the goofball class clown in the second grade or the goofball class clown in high school. We’ll get into the substance around it, but the person who is the goofball in high school that’s a leader has substance. That’s what we’re going to talk about. When can you get away with a joke at work?
There are different things. There’s a difference between being boorish and being witty. I love witty people that can come up with an intelligent twist of words to get you smiling. Witty people are fun to be around. I also like hanging around people that tell lots of fart jokes, but that’s a one-trick pony, that gets old after a while. The people who can twist it around and come up with creative ways to make you smile, they’re fun to be around all the time.
Case in point. One of the people in our four-man Fantasy Football League is the funniest dude we’ve ever met. He sends us the funniest stuff over and over again. Sometimes, he’s overbearing. Sometimes, a great conversation can be ruined by constant humor, but the upside is there’s constant humor and it’s usually pretty damn great.
The upside is you’re the number one realtor in Indiana. We’re talking about Pax here. He’s hilarious. He’s been hilarious since I’ve met him in college. He’s a quip a second, but in that line of work where you are constantly meeting new people, and you have to make an impression quickly and get them to like you. There are no differentiators, all a realtor is doing is the same thing. They’re showing you the listings that are already public and they’re negotiating for you. His differentiator is he’s fun to be around. He’s a fun guy to talk to. He’s a fun guy to joke with. He uses it as a superpower that makes him a ton of money.
If it comes down to it, you work in a lot of ways, likability is important. You and I have spent many of these episodes talking about bias, recency bias, likeness bias, and all of these things. Anybody who makes you laugh is likable. It’s part of the lure that pulls you in.
I’m going to start this episode with a story. There was a heavy time at NVR Mortgage. It was after the financial crisis. Congress put in all kinds of regulations, Dodd-Frank got involved. Overnight almost, the amount of administrative effort that went into completing a mortgage tripled and we didn’t come close to hiring for it. We were still NVR. We are still trying to run nimble and everything. We started failing audits, state audits and internal audits, left and right. Corporate would get mad, and they would come down on branches. People would quit and morale went to crap.
We burned through a president in 2.5 years, and then he was out. A new president came in and things even got worse after that. We have been on a few years of a bad run of service and running our business. Our CEO, it took him a few years where he finally was like, “This isn’t just execution, you need resources.” He gave us a lot. He let us build a compliance desk. He gave us more managers. We changed our whole staffing model. We paid differently. He said, “You’ve got everything you need. I don’t want to hear about the finance company anymore getting in the way of us selling houses.”
We’re in a meeting and he’s going around the boardroom table. This is our seventh come to Jesus meeting in 1.5 years. This was at the nadir. We were in Shitsville, things were bad. No one knew that things were going to get better. We had all these new toys, all these new resources. We had more flexibility than we’d ever had but no one knew when it was going to get better. He was doing what a CEO does, “I’ve given you a lot of money. I’ve given you a lot of resources. I need you all to look me in the eyes and tell me when this thing gets better.”
One by one, the regionals went around the table. I have the biggest regions so normally, I spoke first. I purposely shut up. I didn’t talk because part of me was tired of making commitments. Part of me was like, “I need to just go show him results and not say anything.” One by one, the other four regionals go around the table, and they hem and haw. They said, “Thank you so much for the resources. We think in another quarter, we’re going to start to see good results.”The person who has substance can steer. The person who doesn't is just a clown. Click To Tweet
In my head, I’m like, “This is bullshit. Before we even came in here, you guys were saying we don’t know if this is going to work,” or whatever. It comes to me, and I start by mimicking the way they all started. I was like, “Paul, thanks a lot. These extra resources are going to help. The extra managers are going to be great. With a lot of hard work and intelligence, we’re going to start seeing some improvements in the next 3 to 4 years.” I paused and everyone stared at me. Paul busted up and started laughing his ass off because it was true.
It had already been a couple of years and nothing had been better. Why was I going to commit in three months that it would be better? It broke all the tension in the room. What I said had some substance after it, but the whole meeting took on a different tenor after that. Part of it was to break some of the stress. The other part was to also remind Paul, “No, this isn’t going to happen. We’ve been broke for a while. I’m using humor to try to get you out of your mode of forcing me down on something. We’re going to get better, but you asking me for a date is a little silly and premature at this point.” I used humor to do it. It worked well. It took a lot of tension off of us. We were given time after that to go fix it.
I remember learning in college how to give a presentation. They would tell you, “You tell them what you’re going to tell them, and then you tell them. At the end of the presentation, you tell them what you told them.” That is an incredibly boring recipe. What I found that always worked for me in presentations in college or as I got into work is nobody wants to be there and listen to you anyways. You may as well be at least a little bit entertaining. How can you possibly be entertaining?
When I was in college, back then we had a VCR. They used to tape the economics classes because everyone had to take them. The two guys would relate the weirdest things. One was guns and butter. He was boring, he’s an economist, but the thing it taught me was, why relate all the same stuff that everyone hears? Why don’t you relate unique things like peanut butter and 2x4s? Nobody does that. It was a way to infuse a little bit of humor. What it got me to is I realized people were paying attention.
The other thing I started to do was I started to realize what makes a lot of sense is, “Start with a laugh.” What you harness are likeability and trust. There’s a bunch of things that are fostered if you have the confidence that comes out of your mouth that other people don’t have the confidence. I’ve been in that corporate boardroom, the same one you’re talking about. It’s an intimidating place. The people who we looked up to would giggle, burp, fart or say all kinds of inappropriate stuff because it felt to them what being in our living room couch felt to us because they were comfortable there.
I’ll tell a story about Ian that’s flattering for Ian and not as flattering for me. Ian and I barely know each other. We’re both hotshots. In reality, he’s one year younger than me and he came from the outside. I had risen. We’ve talked in episodes about the annual meetings. I got promoted to this big vice president’s job. I was going to be speaking within the next 30 minutes. Ian completely and totally lacerated me in a humorous way. He talked about how I’ve been promoted a bunch of times, “I’ve heard all the stories about this guy. He’s been promoted nine times in five years. He slipped in mostly lateral promotions.” He did all this funny stuff.
He then showed all these great leaders in the ’80s and ’90s. Most of the pictures were from the early ’90s where they all had mustaches. Ian put a mustache on his face, and he turned around. He’s like, “Frank, the thing you need to be successful around here,” and he turned around wearing a freaking mustache. The place erupted. What I can tell you is I had to speak right after him. It’s hard to follow. He had a well-thought-out plan, he had the audience. People were mobbing him to see him and talk to him because he had the confidence to do it. He had the chops to build a funny joke. It was engaging, and everyone loved him. We’ve talked before about how he got invited to all these meetings because he was smart enough to be able to infuse some humor and make it educational while being fun.
I gave you zero heads up. You had about two minutes to prepare your retort. It was an impossible task to follow after that. You had no idea I was coming after you in that meeting.
Do you remember what I said?
You said something like, “The ‘80s called and wants their hair back.” You then get trumped by a manager after that. He said, “I took a poll and all the girls like you and Sarah,” or something like that. We’re like, “Damn it.” If you take the average person and you say, “What do you love about your wife? What do you like about your husband, boyfriend, or girlfriend?” Most people are going to say, “They make me laugh. They make me smile. They make me happy.” We say that about our best friends. We say that about our family members that we spend the most time with. It’s no different at work.
If you were to ask me, “Who were your favorite people that ever worked for you?” If I started spitting names out, they all make me laugh. They were all funny as hell. They weren’t afraid to crack a joke at the right time. My favorite managers made me laugh. I’m not going to list one manager in my top 5 or 6 that I’ve had. I’ve had twenty-some managers that were boring. Every one of them I would list. They may be better. They weren’t just clowns but they cracked me the hell up.
One of the best employees I ever had, “Frank, you took me all the way to the very end.”
A favorite manager of Frank and mine, and he’s a dear friend of mine. He worked for the company for 40 years. He rose up to be a president. He’s a successful guy. He knew his stuff and a genius. The company kept him around for his last 6 to 7 years even though he’s trying to retire. They paid him just to be around to get involved in big things like a sage at the top of the mountain. My first meeting with him, I’m coming from GE, a buttoned-up corporate world, Brooks Brothers pleated pants, you got your shit together in a meeting. I’m so prepared. I’m meeting with these two presidents and they’re both friends. Kenny and Rainer, a couple of German names. My guard is going to be on point. Everyone’s like, “These guys can make or break your career. When you go in there, have it together.”
I go in. We do a little bit of rapport building, and then out of the blue, Kenny pushes a report at me and says, “What are you going to do about this?” This report showed us all on the red, my business doing terrible things. I start to give him some coherent and intelligent answer. As I’m talking, he leans over under one butt cheek with a smirk on his face and cranks a fart. I don’t know what to do. These guys are both 30 years older than me. I was 28 when I joined there. They would have been in their late 50’s when I joined the company by then.
I don’t know what to do, so I stop. He starts giggling. I’m like, “I think that dude just farted.” I pause, and I’m like, “I’ll just keep talking. He’s older, maybe he can’t control it.” I don’t know what to say. I start getting back into my pitch. He does it again. He leans over again and this one’s even louder, and he makes a noise. Kenny goes, “What did you eat for lunch?” I’m like, “What the hell’s going on?” These guys are supposed to be the highest-ranking guys in a publicly traded company. They’re cranking fart jokes at me while I’m trying to give a pitch. I learned to realize that that’s the way that guy was wired. Everyone had come to accept it and loved him. It was scratching the surface of what an oddball character he was for someone that’s high up into an organization. What I learned was, he also had a lot of substance and he was loved. People loved him.
He can get away with murder because of the love and the substance part. He’d hold you accountable. He would lacerate you if you screwed something up. There was nobody scarier than him to get yelled at or reprimanded from, and there was nobody less than you who wanted to let down. One of the things about this same guy, Ian and I had different exposures to him. The first time I ever met him, he talked about being a family guy. He lived in Florida where I lived. He was trying to build rapport. We talked about how important his kids were to him. He stayed in the Fairfax area because he had two children with special needs and need to be up close to the hospitals. I saw that side of him first before I saw the other side.
As I was rising up the ranks, I heard how freaking smart this guy was. He would be driving down to a job site and he would call something out. He’d be like, “Do we got West Virginia molding over there?” It was missing a piece of molding. It’s looked like missing a tooth. He was making a terrible joke about something, but he was astute enough to know that wasn’t done right. You know he’d been on the field for 30 years. What you realize is if you’re going to be the class clown guy in the corporate setting, you got to know your stuff. You can’t fake it. Ian and I have both hung out with this guy in personal settings. He’s exactly the same as he is in the C-suite as he is on the golf course with a cigar, with his friends, or his family. It’s one of those things.
The other side of it is I’ve got a guy who through the wall, he might be able to hear me as I say this. He’s one of the funniest people any of us has ever met. He’s got all this energy. He’s incredibly likable and the life of every party. He’s younger but when it’s his time to speak, that all goes away. If you’ve got that, know your stuff, know your substance. He and I had a conversation. I’m like, “That has to show up. I don’t know what it is causing you to repress that but you need to pick those moments and let that out because it’s what makes you so incredibly special.” People would kill to have that. Maybe you don’t walk into a meeting and fart three times. You got to build up some confidence in a room to get away with that. The other side of it is if you do have that special talent, figure out how to harness it and utilize it because it’s a differentiator.
It’s worth staying on that because my mind initially went to, “This guy is a major risk to the organization.”
I felt the same way at a different point.
I’m telling one little story. He forwarded all kinds of inappropriate emails that could have offended certain people.
He said crazy things with nicknames. Nicknames that were offensive.The higher up the food chain you get, the less real feedback you get. Click To Tweet
His nicknames were hilarious by the way.
If you’re reading, you’re probably freaking out and thinking why are they extolling this? The impressive thing is he went 40 some years at this company, never a lawsuit, never an HR dispute. No one ever called corporate on him. I’m using him as an example because he’s a disaster if you were telling someone what not to do as a manager on a lot of things. He got away with it because he was all heart. People truly loved him.
If he gave you a nickname, there was never anything mean-spirited behind it. Truly, you wanted a nickname from Kenny. I left that meeting and from then on I was either Slick or GQ. I had two nicknames. That’s all he called me. When I talked to Bill, my boss in the corporate office, he said, “How did it go?” I told him about the farts. He started laughing. He goes, “Yeah, that’s Ken. Only one question. Did he give you a nickname?” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “He liked you.” I was like, “The meeting went okay?” He goes, “I’ll call him but I don’t think I need to. If he gave you a nickname, he liked you.” That was it. I was always taken away that this guy is loved by his team, that he can get away with some stuff. By no means do I’d say you should act the way he did, but he was so heartfelt in the way he led people that no one ever raised their hand and said, “Someone should do something about this guy.”
I started off by talking about my first exposure to him and I realized he was an incredible family guy. The other thing I said is you got to be true to yourself. If you’re a fraud and you try and do this stuff, it doesn’t work. You got to be you. He also knew he was so damn good that he can get away with some stuff.
How about the guy he used to call Sauseege?
My nickname was Fronk, the gay Sam because I used to be what was called a Sam. He then called me Fronk, then he called me Flank Steak.
That was my favorite.
He called this one guy Sauseege because he was Italian. He called another guy Movie Theater Head because he had a receding hairline.
Ed Farkas was Fungus. He had a different name for everyone. No one took it too personal. That was part of his shtick. A part of what we’ll talk about is, if you’re going to get away with that, you got to be authentic. You got to care about people. He can’t act that way or he’d been out long before that for any of that. It was a differentiator for him. He rose up the ranks. He started as a sales rep and worked all the way up to a Top 10 executive in the company and made a fortune. He used humor as a way. Everyone loved him. People loved him in the corporate. They loved him in the field. His peers loved him. Contractors absolutely loved him. He had a way with people and he used humor as a superpower.
We talked about Paxson. Another thing you can use humor with is it’s a way to differentiate in a crowded field. I use two attorneys. One of the attorneys is the same as one that Frank uses. Attorneys are replaceable, they do the same thing. The price doesn’t matter as much as are they competent, but you can find competent attorneys everywhere. The two that I use, every time I get off the phone, I’m laughing. They crack me up. Their emails are funny. Their voicemails are funny. Our conversations are funny. I’m attracted to these attorneys because they make me laugh and they’re memorable, not because they know the law.
Both of them know the law incredibly well. To me, it goes further than the laugh. It goes into, “I am not a trained attorney and I’m closer to a monkey than I am a trained attorney.” What they can do is they can say things in a humorous way that gets my attention. They can also tell a story that’s captivating, that I can remember. They can teach lessons through parables, stories, or some type of humorous example, which allows me to utilize the knowledge, and they can tell you boring stuff in non-boring ways that are memorable.
One of these attorneys, his way of getting points across is to insult you as directly and humorously as he possibly can. He’s good at it. He can lacerate you in a hurry. He’s great at crushing Frank on a regular basis.
He does it a ton and his last name is Sack. I’ll get a text message from someone on my staff with Sack and seven exclamation points, which means there’s a funny email. Most likely, I’m the butt of the joke that I have yet to read.
He will do this with any client no matter how big they are. He will do that with a Fortune 500 company CEO. He does not care. That is his shtick. He will insult his clients in a humorous and good-spirited way. When you think about it, Frank, you can go too far to the side. What do you think the difference is between a fun manager and a clown?
The difference between the fun manager and the clown is substance. It’s the difference between a class clown in the second grade and a class clown in high school. Our class clown in second grade, you don’t know what that person does or their substance. You know nothing. They’re just funny, outlandish, loud, or something and you follow them. That person loses their audience when you start getting into high school because you realize they’re probably not going to do much with their lives.
The opposite happens with my best friend growing up who we reference here all the time. He was two years younger than people in his classes and he was still the class clown getting the best grade. He would get the entire football team in trouble, the guys are older than him, because he’d be screwing around. They wouldn’t be getting good grades and he’d have the highest grade in the class. What you start to realize is smart people can control the narrative. They can control some insecurities or any other things that they might be dealing with because they have a humorous bent in a way to control a narrative. The faster you get around that and you can understand it and utilize it to your advantage, the better off you’re going to be. Ken Glassmacher is like a jock, and he uses that humor with a lovable side, with a lot of humor to control the narrative so he can steer. The person who has substance can steer. The person who doesn’t is just a clown.
One of the things that I’ve found is it’s much better to pick fun at someone that’s above you on the food chain.
You’re great at this. I learned this skill from watching you do it in annual meetings and things like that. I’ve used it because it gives you incredible credibility.
You have to be careful and you have to know the person. If you have a new manager or a new boss that came in and they’re trying to acclimate, you always have that weird moment where there’s some storming going on. As a new manager, he wants it his way or she wants it her way, and the team is pushing back because they like some status quo. There’s that feeling when you’re a new manager and you’re still an outsider for a while.
We had a new president that came in and he was always talking about his karate lessons, that he was going for a black belt. Obviously, we’re all adults and he’s older than us. We’re all thinking, “This guy is still talking about belt colors in karate. This is cute.” He was serious and no one ever wanted to say anything. At the first annual meeting, we were all strait-laced, I didn’t do my normal clowning. I kept it together, watched, stepped back and chilled. On the second one, I got to know him a little better. I knew him a little better at this point than most because I was higher up the food chain. I interacted with him more often. Most people were still scared to death of him.
Out of the blue, I had a slide in there where I talked about what’s going on in his dojo. I had a bunch of different videos of grown men beating up third graders trying to get belts. I even had one that had the same hair and everything. The place was roaring. He was in the back laughing as well. This was interesting. He came and talked to me over beers that night. He said, “When you started to do it, I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know how people would react, but when they started to laugh, it told me that I was one of you. I was in.” He’s like, “I haven’t felt that way. I’ve felt like the new boss telling them. That moment when you crushed me and everyone felt comfortable enough to laugh at me, it made me feel like I was in.” He thanked me. He’s like, “I thank you for doing that because I feel like that humanized me a little bit.” If I’d done that too early, it could have gone bad. You have to sense, “Do I have the relationship where this person could handle this?”When you point out your shortcomings against someone else's successes, it humanizes you. Click To Tweet
Do you see the irony in these stories of what you said about Kenny and this one?
I do. The irony to me is this. Kenny was the kingmaker. He gave you a nickname, you’re in the club. Ian’s the young, handsome, talented kid, and if he makes fun of you, you’re in the club. You’ve got to have the chops, you better have a big enough target on your back. You better be good enough. Ian and I became incredibly good friends. He made fun of me right out of the gate because he heard about me. He knew I had a reputation. He knew that I was an up and comer. He knew I could take it. He knew all of those things.
If you know how to do this strategically, it can be huge. I did this my own way. I watched Ian do it in his career. When I’ve left my career, what I have found is that the higher up the food chain you get, the less real feedback you get. Besides my two-year-old and my wife, I rarely hear if I piss you off or something like that because I run a business. I don’t get feedback except from a small group of people. What I have learned is you have to be insanely sure that you’re going to get away with this or you’re going to get laughed out of the room. It’s not going to go well.
There’s a guy in my circle that is the world’s biggest bully. Ian has met him. We’ve gone to conferences with him. He just destroys people. He’s never destroyed me and I have made fun of him ruthlessly. I believe it all balances back to this. He knows that I know what I’m talking about. He knows he doesn’t need to undress me because it’s not going to be effective. If I make a mistake, he’ll ask the question or he’ll do it in a way that’s coaching. As a return favor, I roast him. It humanizes him. It’s got this weird relationship and it works so well because of that. Does that make sense? I know you’ve seen it.
That’s a big reason why I do it as much as I do. I’m much harder on people who are more powerful than me, more accomplished than me. Part of it is it sends a signal that I don’t need them. It sends a signal that I’m confident enough in myself, that I’m not sitting around worrying that they might fire me. By nature of doing those kinds of things, picking on him, you’re saying, “I don’t need to borrow money from you.” The people who bully are desperately looking to borrow hard money from him. That’s what you’re talking about.
You’re saying, “I like hanging around you, but if you gave me the finger and we never talked again, I’d be fine. I’m pretty confident myself.” “Yeah, I get it. You’re a much bigger fish than me, but I don’t give a damn. I’m going to pick on you.” For someone like him, when he’s used to being around people that are scared of him all the time, he appreciates having someone who will give it to him because you get tired of being the emperor with no clothes. Everyone says you look fine and everyone is fighting with each other to agree with you. I’ve learned long ago that the people higher up don’t have enough people that will crack them every once in a while. They appreciate it and they like it. From the CEO down, I would do that to people. I pick my moments. I try to be smart about it when I did it, and in what group I would do it.
Let’s talk about the strategy. Let’s say there is somebody you build a bond with and you think that it might make sense to utilize this strategy. What I always try is something smaller and nonpublic, and see how it goes. Before you do a big public show and show the dojo, you got to know that you have a little bit of a relationship, you got to know the sense of humor, you got to understand what you’re treading on and make sure it’s not sacred turf. There are strategic ways that you can do this through conversations, warming things up and feeling it out. You can then pounce and have fun with it. The other thing is you better be ready to take it back because you might get some in return. That’s part of the fun. If you do it right, it becomes a pretty ballet.
You floated dozens of little cracks to see, do they smile? What’s their sense of humor? Do they like those kinds of jokes? You keep taking up the temperature a little bit when you go through it. It’s an incredibly powerful tool when you use it the right way.
In a corporate setting, if you’ve got an ally like Ken, “What was your meeting with this guy like?” “That’s a tough fish. That’s a tough nut to crack.” You know that you don’t want to necessarily pick that guy or you figure out an angle. You can also utilize some others who were implementing a similar strategy.
Gallows humor is dark humor. This is a term that was coined by Sigmund Freud in the ’20s. He wrote a whole paper on this. There’s one piece that I pulled out that I’m interested in. I’m going to quote from Freud, “A person may behave toward a terrible scenario as an adult was toward a child when he recognizes and smiles at the triviality of interest and sufferings, which seems so great. Thus, the humorist would acquire his superiority by assuming the role of the grown-up and reducing the other people who are frightened being children.”
That’s a fascinating thought process around gallows humor. What he’s saying is, as an adult, if a kid says, “I’m scared, there might be someone in my closet,” you giggle at him and you crack a joke to say, “Come on, kid. I know better than that.” When you’re dealing with adults, they might say something like, “We might go out of business. This is a scary recession. We might go bankrupt.” At that moment, cracking a joke, you assume a superior role to them saying, “Relax, children. It’s not that bad. We can laugh about these kinds of things.” I find that fascinating, the way Freud looks at gallows humor as an adult child. Everything was adult-child to him.
You got to be careful where you apply this if you’re in a smaller business. If I was worried about the market and I was saying it was going to tank. I’m not an alarmist by nature, and you came back with that, it’ll almost be like the Wes Welker thing we talked about, which we’ll get into, “Way to fight for it. Way to compete. You’re off base.” The important thing with all of this is you got to pick the right moment and it has to be in the right setting. The best joke with the wrong timing can fail, and it can fail you and your career spectacularly.
Interestingly, my funniest stories, some of my favorite stories that I tell on this show that we talked about, whether from GE, NVR or since I’ve left NVR have been at moments of my highest stress. The recession, ugly, scary markets, new managers, reorganizations where I was scared that I was going to lose my job. I find that it’s innate in some people that when things get nuts, they can calm everyone down around them by making fun of the situation.
In a great book, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien is the author of this, he’s relaying an experience when he first got to Vietnam. They had to call in an airstrike on a village because they were encountering sniper fire. After the airstrike, they went down to the village. They were expecting to find all these guerrillas and insurgents. All that was there was an old dead man. He had one of his arms blown off and he was laying on his back with his head up.
He wrote about how each soldier in their unit went up to the old dead man and shook his hand, and said, “How do you do?” The next one goes up and says, “How do you do?” They were all laughing about it. At first, it’s kind of gnarly. You got a dead dude, but it was their coping mechanism in the war of going from atrocity to atrocity. You hear about that in World War I, how many jokes came out of the trenches, how many funny songs were created in the trenches, people drawing cartoons in the trenches. Because how else do you go from the day-to-day of that kind of misery. Gallows humor is just that, cracking jokes when you’re about to go to the gallows and get your head cut off because how the hell else am I going to cope?
I don’t think there’s anything to say there except, exactly. It’s a mechanism born through necessity because you have to. What I would tell you though is when you’ve delivered those points of humor, you’ve been in a room where it made sense to do or you understood temperature, or you’re the leader, and you made the joke. It’s a lot funnier if you’re the one steering the ship when you say it. When something bad happens around here, I’m usually the first one to break the ice, “That didn’t kill us.” People feel like, “I can’t believe he’s not pissed or flying off the handle.” As the leader, you can neutralize a lot of fear through that. If you’re a subordinate, you got to be careful.
Stephen Colbert has an awesome quote on this. He says, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time. You just can’t.” This was one quote in a larger context around why comedians were so important in 2020 because so many people were afraid and it was terrible. He came out and said, “Now more than ever, we need humor because you can’t do the same things at the same time.” Humor can be distracting, it leaves people a little less able to focus on the negative information, it helps them move on to what we have to do next. When you have fear in an organization, it’s easy to focus on the past. It’s focused to freeze and quit doing anything. What you need a team to do is get over it and move to the next thing we can do right now. Sometimes, the best way to get them to move over it is to crack a joke.
Why don’t you tell us that funny Glassdoor story?
While we were in the midst of a lot of that turnover that I started this show with, not only were we losing employees, but we had this bad rash where all of them were talking to each other and saying, “Let’s go on Glassdoor.” We didn’t even know much about Glassdoor at the time. We’d never had issues with it before. All of a sudden, HR was sending us these Glassdoor reviews. Me and the 7 or 8 managers on my team all signed up for notifications if anything came out from NVR on Glassdoor. Rather than get upset about them, what we started doing is we would read Glassdoor.
If we got a review, we all saw it. I would print it and put it first in the packet for our weekly meeting. We’d go around and we’d say, “Who thinks this is their office?” We’d have them read it out loud to the group. It was like the Mean Tweets segment on Jimmy Kimmel. It would be hilarious to listen to people read the Glassdoor as if they were the person. My favorite one and I don’t think he’s going to get too upset about this. NVR, at least our business, wasn’t the most diverse business. We had one Asian manager in our whole company.
He happened to be a good friend of mine and everyone on our team. These Glassdoors were random, but this one was like, “The interview process was a disaster. The Asian manager, especially, was mean and he had a wrinkly shirt and a stinky breath.” I read it out loud at our group and everyone knows there’s only one Asian manager in the company. I’m like, “I wonder who they’re talking about.” Everyone started crying at Divo. For three months, every time we’d see him, we’d be like, “That’s a nicely pressed shirt. It looks like you got your act together,” every single time. It’s not like we just ignored it and said Glassdoor is not important to us. We were still focusing on it. I wasn’t focused on Glassdoor. I was focusing on keeping people and making them happier. Every time we get one, we learn a little bit from it, but we made it funny. We didn’t turn it into life or death. We didn’t threaten to fire people. We laughed a little bit about the absurdity that is Glassdoor in the first place.It's easier to be self-deprecating if you believe it. Click To Tweet
What’s the movie with the Italian guy where he makes a joke and makes it like his family is living in an incredible place during the Holocaust? Do you remember that? He won an Academy Award for Best Actor. I thought of it here. There’s a song that’s like, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Some of these times that you’re going through, like these incredible things. In the movie that I’m talking about, the man who wins the Academy Award walks on top of the chairs to go up to the stage to accept his award because he’s got this incredible personality that will not be contained. He acts in the movie about one of the worst atrocities in the last 200 years, but at the same time, he had a family and he had to make it the best he possibly could so he did.
There are two things to say about this specifically. At work, no matter what you’re living through, the Earth probably is not going to spin off its axis. We’re probably all going to live. Having some humor levity perspective is hugely important. Number two, unless you want to fire your staff and be completely miserable, these are the group of people you got to get through it with. If you can pick up morale in a downtime and you can get people to rally around you, that’s how leadership is forged. Look at who has become leaders in our country and in companies. Usually, it’s because of some kind of strife, war or something. There are the worst things possibly happening, and then people find others around you, and they are drawn to that.
We’ve talked a little bit about where it’s appropriate. Superiors tend to take it better when you pick at them a little bit if you play it right because a superior already know they’re above you. The guy you were talking about that you’re picking on has a lot more money than you. He can’t feel threatened by you. You’re small fish to him. Someone bigger has more money. A good friend of mine in Vienna, I’m always messing around with like, “I’m going to kick your butt.” He’s a 270 pound, ex defensive end for a Division 1 college football team. He’s not threatened by me saying these things to him so I can say it and get away with it.
We talked about gallows humor, which is making fun of a situation. You’re making fun of an environment. The trench humor is making fun of the war in itself. You’re not making fun of anything else. Another powerful way of doing it is self-deprecation. There are a lot of good examples of this just with presidential candidates, a couple of famous ones. One was JFK, when he was running for office, he was getting a lot of criticism that his rich dad might buy the election.
At a correspondence charity dinner, in a speech, he said, “I’ve received a wire from dear old dad and I wanted to read it to you. He said, ‘Dear Jack, don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary to win the election. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.’” He took something, a rumor that was out there that he was buying it, and he addressed it head-on with a joke. It dissipated the whole thing. It was over because by not mentioning it, it gave credence to it. By making fun of it, everyone reported on it and laughed about it and it lost its power.
One of our favorite scenes in any movie, and we share this collectively, is Eminem in 8 Mile. What does he do?
“Tell these people something they don’t know about me?”
He gives them everything, every bad piece of information. He renders his competition speechless. The crowd is laughing but your competition can say nothing because you took away all their bullets. If you have the self-confidence, the aptitude, and the ability to pay attention and understand that if you’re not obtuse, you don’t take yourself too seriously, this is when self-depreciation works incredibly. You can use it in so many ways. I’ll let you get into Reagan, then we can tell some stories.
Reagan was 73 when he ran for president in 1984. He was running against Mondale. Mondale’s approach was, “He’s too old to be president. He’s losing his mind. He doesn’t have his faculties. He was a great man. He no longer is. He’s not sharp enough to do it.” It got brought up at a debate. Reagan’s quote was amazing. It was, “I refuse to make age an issue in this election. I won’t exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
He completely flipped something. Not only did he flip it and turn his weakness into a strength that he was more experienced and Mondale was inexperienced, but he also showed America, “I’m quick-witted enough and smart enough at 73 to outwit my opponent with a funnier joke.” It was more memorable. That wouldn’t have been as memorable if it wouldn’t have been funny, but it made everyone there laugh. It made Mondale break out and start laughing. It was funny. It was like a laugh out loud kind of a joke.
In case you’re not a historian, you don’t know this stuff, or you’re not paying attention to it or you have forgotten. In 1984, Reagan ended up winning by one of the largest margins in the last 70 years. He was beloved. I was 8 or 9 when all this was happening. That happened at the second presidential debate. Reagan got his ass kicked in the first one. There’s a series of documentaries that are out that go through the second presidency. I’ve watched The Reagans.
He got trounced. He didn’t prepare. Mondale murdered him. The one thing that he knew that he could overcome with humor was this. In that same debate, he gave up the fact that we had Contras in Panama. He gave away secret information, but he was so likable. He was so compelling. He was so incredible at that moment, he went viral before you could go viral, and because he did that, he overcame a crappy first debate, giving up the fact that we had top-secret information being shared, and he won the whole election right there. It’s a mic drop.
I saw this with a vice president once at a meeting. His division was known for profits. They were good at sales, profits and all these things. The leadership of our company was trying to get the company to focus on efficiency and administrative stuff. A lot of the big trophies that year were based on things that traditionally his team was not good at. This big award came out to another division, not him, where they were recognized for a certain number of homes sold with zero change orders. That’s an efficiency thing. You understand all that, Frank. It’s less paperwork, easier on the office, we can run with fewer people.
He got up there and his lead entry was, “Congratulations to the division with that many sales with zero change orders.” It was 23 homes with zero change orders. He said, “I’m excited to say that last weekend, we signed one contract with 23 change orders.” The whole place fell out laughing, including our CEO. He couldn’t stop laughing about it. It was our CEO that was driving some of these changes in the organization. That’s the difference between second-grade humor and the class clown who’s witty in high school. It was witty as hell, he twisted a number a little bit. He diffused the fact that his division had not completely yet bought into a new initiative and reminded everyone, “I’m still pretty good at a few other things,” which I thought was awesome.
One of the things that you notice in incredible people, you get a comedian who gets up on stage and it’s beautiful to watch. It is choreographed and you know they’ve worked their asses off in the clubs to get to the arenas. You watch that person who does improv, who makes things up on the fly, that’s a completely different skillset. If you can utilize that to just some degree of success in your life and your career and add levity, and if you do it to your own detriment, it always works. When you point out your shortcomings against someone else’s successes, it humanizes you. It immediately makes the crowd think, “This person is confident enough to realize they have a shortcoming. They’re not running from it.” That’s what true leadership is. True leadership isn’t you’re always Superman. True leadership is looking at it like, “I suck there.” Taking it honestly and being able to say, “It’s time for us to pivot away.” You’re right, we have been slow to do so. We’re now willing to do it, I hear you.
There was a study on this where they studied interviewers and job applicants. Those with a limited math background had two answers that they gave. One gave a standard answer where they said, “I’m not good at addition, subtraction or geometry.” The other one said, “I’m fine with addition and subtraction, but geometry is where I draw the line.” It’s a funny line, and it would get a laugh out of the interviewer, but what came out of it was the interviewers thought much more highly of the math skills of the people that used it as a quip.
This reminds me of our peak-end theory episode. The person who had the probe stuck it in their ass for three extra minutes.
You don’t want the wiggling, Frank. A way that I do this with self-deprecating is one of my favorite lines to use is, “Whose dumb idea was this anyway?” I only do it when it was my idea. Let’s say I’ve been pounding some initiative for a year. We’re all starting to realize that there are bad unintended consequences that came from my idea. We’ll be talking about it and I’ll be like, “Who the hell’s stupid idea was it to measure this anyway?” It gets everyone to laugh a little bit. It diffuses the room a little. What it also does is it gets your team comfortable with giving you more feedback, saying, “Now that we’re talking about it, it’s worse than we even thought it was.” You can get that good feedback by saying, “I’m not afraid to criticize myself in a humorous way. I think you should all feel just as comfortable picking on me as well.”
This can be successfully used in many different facets of business and life. You can use it at work. You can use it at home. A two-year-old that can’t pick up subtlety, it’s not going to work with, but it certainly works with my wife. Anytime I make fun of myself, it’s always welcomed. The other thing that I learned about self-deprecating humor is whenever I would speak publicly, I used to get very nervous to be in front of a room. I would always say something in the first 90 seconds that was either really funny or made fun of me and was funny. If I did it, I was humanizing myself to the crowd. I got a laugh so I’m in control and I would get a brief pause that allowed me to breathe.
I would always do something like that, that made fun of usually me. It would give me 30 seconds to breathe, shut my microphone off, calm down, and then take on my info. If I ever get into a stumble in a presentation when I’m in front of a crowd and I speak on stage all the time, I always go back to it. Even as a reset, “I was dumb. How the hell did I screw that?” It’s almost like you’re asking for a moment of grace without saying it and it works so incredibly well when you can use that to your advantage.
I’ve seen a lot of people survive in companies for long periods of time without performing because they were liked and because they owned the fact that they weren’t performing. It wasn’t that they weren’t trying, but they were liked, funny about it, and they were honest about it. To demonstrate this, one of my absolute favorite coaches of all time was not a good one in the NFL, but he was great in college, John McKay.
Let’s talk about this for a little bit like in preparation for this, Ian and I are going through the agenda. I remember all these things but this is 40 something years ago. In reading this, we’re both in hysterics. We’ve all heard this, we know these stories, we know all of these things. We’ve seen Chris Berman do them 100 times, even so, you come back and you read it. You’re like, “These are incredible.”If you're going to use humor, you got to have someone willing and able to comprehend and listen. Click To Tweet
John McKay is a Hall of Fame college football coach. He won the Rose Bowl 5 times, 9 conference titles at USC, the Trojans, with 127 wins and 40 losses. He leaves after this brilliant career to form the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s going to be their first coach of the expansion team. Clearly, they’re going to suck. No one has high expectations early. He loses his first 26 games but he keeps his job for nine years. His win-loss record at the end of it was 44 wins and 88 losses. He has the losingest coach ever. No coach ever makes it that long, losing that long. Part of the reason was he was loved by the media, owners and fans because he could turn it into a joke.
Some of his best quotes. A reporter asked him about his team’s execution and he said, “I’m all for it.” He had another one, “I told my team after the game that there are 750 million people in China who don’t even know this game is played. The next day, a guy from China called and asked, ‘What happened coach?’” He said, “It’s good to have a dog because when you stink it up on the field, you come home and they’re always your friend, but when I lost the Notre Dame, 51 to nothing, my dog bit me.” “We didn’t block, but we made up for it by not tackling.” He was asked about his defense and he said, “We can’t stop the past or the run, otherwise we’re in great shape.” If you Google John McKay, there are 50, 60 quips like this.
The guy was always funny and entertaining. He did have a few winning seasons mixed in, but he was given a really long leash and a long time of not performing. He was one of the highest-paid guys in the league. When he took Tampa’s job, they paid him $2 million. That was insane at the time to lure away a Hall of Famer to get him there. For nine years, he’s one of the highest-paid guys in his field losing all the time but he showed confidence by doing this. He seemed more trustworthy, he was more likable and people gave him a birth versus a guy who just ran the Lions, Matt Patricia, who was obstinate, fought with the press, never smiled and didn’t crack a joke.
He had no resume to speak off when he got there.
He tried to take a hard-ass approach. The media hated him, which meant the fans started to hate him really quick and the owner had no choice but to go and get rid of him. A lot of it was, he had no sense of humor about anything. He was not a likable guy. He could have bought himself another year or two if he would’ve been more self-deprecating and had a little bit more fun in how he handled his team and the media.
It’s easier to be self-deprecating if you believe it. We all believe it more when we’re younger, less successful, before the big job, before we marry the pretty girl or whatever, however you measure the success. What I find incredibly fascinating about John McKay is his incredible resume. USC is the 33rd NFL franchise at certain points in time. He’s in Southern California, in my opinion, the best place on Earth, but he never took himself too seriously. He was a serious person but he also joked enough about it and said, “I know this sucks. I’m not afraid to tell you it sucks.” He didn’t do it a Belichick or an Urban Meyer way. He did it with an incredible amount of competence, humor and he kept tearing himself down.
Why is that important? As you get higher and higher on the mountain top, you lose sight of the fact that you still need to do this. You need to do it more when you’re up top than you need to do it less. It grounds you and makes you more relatable and keeps you in the know and relevant. I think it’s hysterical when Patricia who has no real resume to speak of is like, “There are several Patriot assistants that have done this. They’ve moved to the NFL, become head coaches, and they are brash and arrogant.” You are brash and arrogant underneath the best coach in history with a quarterback who’s won more super bowls than any NFL franchise. This is not the moment to be brash and arrogant. This is the moment to be humble and to be incredibly appreciative. It’s the flip of what you usually see, which is what’s so cool about it.
The last one we’re going to talk about is when to use humor when delivering difficult feedback. We’ll go to another president. Lincoln, during the Civil War, was upset with General McClellan because McClellan would never attack Lee. He kept finding reasons why like they didn’t have enough resources or the terrain wasn’t enough. He sent them a letter that said, “General McClellan, if you don’t want to use my army, I should like to borrow it for a while,” which I think is one of the all-time zings. He’s using humor because he had already written enough letters that said, “Attack. Approach them. Engage.” It’s the same thing over and over. To get his attention, he used a quip.
It got us thinking about a more modern one of using a sports analogy. Wes Welker was one of the great wide receivers for the New England Patriots of all time. He was also a punt returner, but towards the end of his tenure he had to miss a game and it was because he was feeling sick. He wasn’t feeling good. He was a scratch. He was in civilian clothes. The rookie on the team, Julian Edelman, who’s now become a many-time over the pro bowler, got a chance to fill in for him.
He returned to punt for a touchdown in that game. Belichick gets on his headphone up to the top and says, “Who is the guy that played before Lou Gehrig went on a streak? Wally Pipp, that’s it.” He goes over to Wes Welker and he says, “Welker, you know who played in the infield before Lou Gehrig?” Welker doesn’t understand the joke and he goes, “Wally Pipp was the guy before and then he missed a game.” Lou Gehrig didn’t come out for twenty years. He’s making a point to Welker that you didn’t show up today and this rookie is about to take your job. What does Welker say to him?
He goes, “He can have it.”
How did Belichick respond to that?
“Way to compete, Wes.”
Interestingly enough, he was trying to get his point across. Trying to use some humor using the old Wally Pip joke. Interestingly though Welker was gone the next year and Edelman was the starting wide receiver because Welker didn’t take that nudge. Peter McGraw, ran a bunch of experiments and found that when giving negative feedback, if you’re using humor, it’s received better overall but it can also be seen as less serious or benign and recipients feel less compelled to take action. My takeaway from this is if you’re going to use humor to deliver difficult feedback know the person well and know that’s going to land in some way. I like to use it as an early reminder or a little nudge of, “I’m paying attention.” This isn’t like a, “Sit down, I’m having negative feedback with you.” It’s just maybe an effort. Maybe it’s something else, but I might use a little bit of humor to let you know I’m still paying attention.
Different scenarios. When I watched the Belichick, Wally Pipp thing, it made me realize that Wes Welker, isn’t too smart. He either isn’t smart, he wasn’t paying attention, or some combination of both because he didn’t get it. If you’re going to use humor, you got to have someone who is willing and able to comprehend and listen. The second part of using humor is to give bad news. I usually use it when I’m tired. I’m using a normal approach. It’s my last, second to last or maybe third to the last-ditch effort of, “We’re going to let you go.”
It’s one of those things where you might’ve earned it or if you’re smart enough, you realize, “I can’t even get a straight approach anymore because I’m not earning it.” I’m the opposite of most people. I’m told I’m blunt, straight to the point or no beating around the bush. When I go to humor in these serious moments, it’s like, “I’m about to do this,” and throw my hands up. You got to be very careful if that happens.
I would do things sometimes where if there was someone who worked at our company who was infamous for doing something knuckleheaded and they no longer work at our company, I would start to call someone that name. Picking at them a little bit like the old McGillicutty. If McGillicutty was a knucklehead and always missed deadlines, and I had a manager who wasn’t like that, but all of a sudden was missing deadlines all the time. I’d start to call him McGillicutty and act like it was a Freudian slip like, “I’m sorry. I meant Mike. Sorry, I missed that.” If they’re the right person and the right temperament, they get it. It lands. They get what you’re saying. It changes. You can stop with that little poke. Giving difficult feedback, if you’re not great at this, I would avoid it because most people would probably screw it up.
You’re either great at this or you can grow into it but if you don’t think you can pull this off, you’re better off, especially with this, to just go straight ahead. You do get to a point in your life and your career where it’s almost like you’re joking with yourself because you’re so pissed that you’re there. It’s like, “I really got to go through this again with you?” Let’s say you have a star performer who does one dumb thing. You’ll hear in football, they’ll call someone butterfingers. Clearly not butterfingers if you’re playing wide receiver in the NFL, but they call you butterfingers, which means you can’t catch the ball because you dropped a couple of key passes and you’re too damn good for that. I feel like that’s the time to use the humor because most of us don’t have Lincoln’s command of the English language, but if it’s a real performance thing, attack it straight ahead.
We can summarize this all up. If you’re going to use it, use it on yourself, self-deprecation. Use it for the scenario. Pick on the scenario, pick on the market, pick on whatever. Find a villain you’re all up against and make fun of that part of the situation. Be very careful doing it down. Use it more up the chain than down the chain. If it’s out of your character, if you’re not funny in your personal life, you likely won’t be funny at work. You’re not going to become magically funny. If you’re not able to quip at home or with your friends or with your family, you’re not going to be good at it at work. On the other side, as Frank said, if you are really good at it in your personal life, don’t hide it. It’s a superpower of yours. Use it. Let that part of your personality flourish a little bit more.
Be careful if you don’t have relationships, making jokes at someone else’s expense. Be careful with inside jokes that you can alienate people if you don’t make them in on it. Going back to Kenny, everyone had a nickname. He didn’t just give nicknames to his ten favorite people. He found a way to give everyone a nickname so everyone felt inclusive. Be careful with locker room humor, it can ruin your brand. It can come across as low EQ. The same with the presentation. If you’re not very good at leading with a joke, don’t lead with a joke. If that stresses you out so much, the prospect of telling a joke in front of a group of people in a presentation, don’t do it. You’re going to be stressed and you’re probably going to bobble it. Those are my takeaways for a summary.
What I would summarize this entire episode is this, understand who you are and what your superpowers are. We all have them. Some people just spend a lot of their lives trying to find them. If you can be honest and you are a funny person, use it. Pick the right times. Use it at the right moments. A superpower overused can no longer be a superpower, but if you use what you do have appropriately, efficiently and effectively, it can make you incredibly hard to overlook, an incredible communicator or someone who is very compelling to follow. That’s it, but if humor isn’t it, find your other superpower and corral them the same way that we’ve talked about doing it with humor.
Don’t equate humor to not being serious. Your guy, if I was giving him advice, the guy that’s behind the wall that you said was funny because he’s bringing it to work. In his mind, he thinks that if he shows people that he’s funny at work, people won’t take him seriously. I’m here to say that’s completely inaccurate. Even senior executives like to laugh, like to be around people that make them smile, that can lighten the mood. I have seen people that are incredibly wealthy, use humor on a daily basis at work. They were fun to work for and people stayed with them because they let that part of their personality shine.Don't equate humor to not being serious. Click To Tweet
Our last point of summary, and we’ve talked about this before in prior shows, who are you taking an advice from? Who’s telling you not to be funny at work? Who are you really listening to? Ian and I have both managed huge teams, built businesses, and we love humorous people if they’ve got the chops.
You’ve got the chops, homey. That’s your chop right there, big boy.
We both dressed up for the occasion. You wore an Average Joe t-shirt, which is a reference I believe to the Dodge Ball.