Levity at work

Dear colleagues,

Do you go along to class prepared to tell some amusing stories - and listen to your students tell some too? Do you get a chuckle when discussing research? Do you look forward to a few good laughs at staff meetings? In short, are you having fun at work?

If not, you need to lighten up. So say Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher in their book The Levity Effect. The authors are US writers and presenters and they have a message: bringing a sense of fun into workplaces is good for productivity.

They give story after story of businesses whose employees give more because they get a sense of enjoyment from what they're doing - or opportunities to play along the way. They also provide some evidence.

Each year, the Great Place to Work Institute asks tens of thousands of employees to rate their experience of workplace factors including, "This is a fun place to work." On Fortune 's "100 Best Companies to Work For" list, produced by the Great Place to Work Institute, employees in companies that are denoted as "great" responded overwhelmingly - an average of 81 percent - that they are working in a "fun" environment. That's a compelling statistic: employees at the best companies are also having the best time. At the "good" companies - those that apply for inclusion but do not make the top 100 - only 62 employees out of 100 say they are having fun. That gap in experience is, surprisingly, one of the largest in the survey. (p. 13)

Gostick and Christopher argue that levity improves productivity, communication, health and wealth. But it's not just a matter of adding fun: "Think of levity not simply as a tool in the workplace, but a symptom of its culture" (p. 105). A key part of a culture is respect.

[Richard] Branson and other levity leaders will tell you that treating employees with closeness and dignity is also critical in retention efforts. Those employees who feel like they are not respected by their employers are much more likely to leave their jobs. According to a recent Sirota survey, employees are three times more likely to leave their employers with two years if they do not feel respected - 63 percent of respondents to the survey planned to exit within two years compared with only 19 percent who sensed respect. (p. 107)

Gostick and Christopher argue that levity at work helps to build respect. Conversely, research shows "you can't have fun if respect between colleagues doesn't exist. Greater amounts of respect build greater amounts of trust. And trust leads to an environment where fun can flourish." (p. 106)

Much of The Levity Effect is devoted to giving examples of what having fun at work actually means. It doesn't mean the boss needs to tell jokes or do silly stunts. It's more an attitude that allows others to enjoy themselves.

... that's the key, really. Sometimes the best way to increase creativity is to simply discontinue telegraphing disapproval of employee levity. Unknit your eyebrows. Declench your jaws a little. (p. 84)

Gostick and Christopher list "142 ways to have fun at work", including:

109. Make product quizzes fun with fun prizes.

113. Create a yearbook for your team with pictures and stories of accomplishments during the year.

117. Race remote control cars around a course marked by orange cones.

119. Bring in a masseuse monthly to offer neck and shoulder massages.

131. To keep an audience rapt during a presentation, add something humorous every six minutes.

135. Play hockey in the hallway. (pp. 166-169)

The sorts of things that will be effective depend on the workplace. Applying Gostick and Christopher's ideas to teaching, research and administration is straightforward.

In the classroom, the teacher is analogous to the boss and therefore has the greatest influence on the atmosphere. A teacher doesn't need to be a comedian, but simply to let students relax and enjoy themselves while learning. I don't tell jokes but we have snacks in every class, which seems to make students more relaxed.

Gostick and Christopher make one mention of universities:

... humor also works in the classroom. In fact, college students are more likely to recall a lecture when it is sprinkled with jokes. Sam Houston State University psychologist Randy Gardner's fascinating research [ College Teaching, 54 (1), 2006] showed that when levity about relevant topics was injected into lectures, students scored an amazing 15 percent higher on exams than their nonhumored, bored-to-drooling peers. That's the difference between an A and a B- ... or maybe between pass and fail. (p. 40)

Then there's administration. When did you last look forward to a staff meeting, knowing it would be fun? In fact, how often have you skipped a staff meeting because you know it will be deadly dull? Would you be more likely to attend if the agenda was covered using a game show format?

Gostick and Christopher give an example of a poorly attended awards night that was recast in a comedy format. Rather than putting people off, acceptances came rolling in (p. 83).

Academics are good at critique and so are sure to come up with objections to using levity. Chapter 8 gives responses to common objections such as that having fun didn't work, there can be too much of a good thing, that if people are having fun they won't take their work seriously, and that it's not professional to goof around.

Levity at Work is easy to read, filled with examples, some argument, and more examples. It's also filled with silly word play, which you may enjoy, or maybe not ... but hey, they're trying!

Brian Martin
14 April 2009

Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher, The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up (New York: Wiley, 2008)


PS Did you hear this one?

A fox raced into a bar and ordered a double Scotch.

The bartender said "Hey, you look a bit down and out. Got a problem?"

The fox [in a gruff voice]: "I'm not happy. My teacher just busted me for plagiarism."

Bartender: "That's rough. Do you want to tell me about it?"

Fox: "I used this sentence without giving an attribution: 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog'."

Bartender: "That's unfair. Everyone knows that's a standard sentence used by typists. You shouldn't have to give a source. I should know - I have an arts degree from Wollongong University."

Fox: "Yeah, I agree. The problem is ... my teacher is a lazy dog!"

Go to

Brian's comments to colleagues

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website