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Humor in the Workplace Is No Funny Business

Funny business is a serious subject for 4Front speakers Peter McGraw and Shane Mauss. In a recent 4Front podcast, the unlikely pair—McGraw is a business school professor (or behavioral economist – your choice), and Mauss is a standup comedian—explain what might be a startling punchline to many people: Comedy and innovation share the same boundary-breaking processes, and therefore humor can be effective in driving business success.

The partnership between McGraw and Mauss began almost a decade ago. Describing himself as “funny-ish,” McGraw had already written a scientific paper about what makes moral violations funny when he met Mauss at a comedy festival in Portland, Oregon. For his part, Mauss was building his comic career but also had a keen interest in science. The pairing of science and humor was like “peanut butter and jelly,” Mauss says.

“It was pretty amazing,” he adds. “[McGraw] was a scientist trying to study humor. I was a comedian trying to do science jokes. And our paths crossed right at the early stages of that.”

In many ways, the result of that collaboration is McGraw’s 2020 book, Shtick to Business, which features insights from Mauss. In it, McGraw observes that comics such as Mauss often use contrarian humor, taking a common observation and reversing it to gain a laugh—and that process can be used as a model for business entrepreneurs.

“Fundamentally, what a good business does is break rules,” McGraw says. “It sees the world in a way that no one else is seeing it.”

McGraw and Mauss aren’t alone in seeing the connection between humor and a successful business. A 2017 Robert Half International survey found that 91 percent of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement, and 84 percent said that people with a good sense of humor do a better job.

Furthermore, Stanford Graduate School of Business researchers found that people fall off a “humor cliff” when they enter the workforce. At that point, they find things funny less frequently and perceive that their own sense of humor has diminished. The researchers note that this loss of humor has a negative effect in the workplace because humor is an effective and under-used tool for driving competition with peers, retaining employees, developing innovative solutions and making teams more resilient to stress.

This idea that humor not only has a place in business but can also drive it is the message McGraw and Mauss will bring to the 4Front Conference June 15–16 in Aurora, Colorado.

“You don’t want to hire a bunch of comedians to work at CableLabs,” McGraw observes. “That would be a disaster! What you want to do is bring me in with my comedian friends. We’ll let them run around for an afternoon and come up with a bunch of really innovative stuff.”

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