Humor: Serious Business

Gentry Magazine learns how Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker and Lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, MBA ’15 are bringing humor to the classroom and business world.

September 28, 2017


Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas | Jack Hutch

The inaugural Humor: Serious Business class launched this past spring semester.

The brainchild of Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker and Lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, MBA ’15, the interactive course was designed in part to help students develop an appreciation for the role of humor in the workplace and even for one’s well-being. Naomi calls humor “an underleveraged superpower in business.” The duo brought in comedians and business executives who use and encourage humor at their companies as guest lecturers.

So, why humor? The late journalist Eric Sevareid said “Next to power without honor, the most dangerous thing in the world is power without humor.”

Naomi Bagdonas: Humor: Serious Business is about the power (and importance) of humor to make and scale positive change in the world, and also to achieve business objectives, build more effective and innovative organizations, cultivate stronger bonds, and capture more lasting memories. Our goal is to help infuse the kind of humanity, humility, and intellectual perspective that only humor can bring.

Jennifer Aaker: The interesting thing is that as kids, we are all hilarious — we’re killin’ it on a daily basis. As middle schoolers and teenagers, we continue to be funny. But then something changes and we stop being funny. And in our research, we think we’re beginning to pinpoint a shift — a “humor cliff” when people enter the workforce.

That is, worldwide data collected by Gallup last year shows that when asked to rate themselves against the prompts “I believe I am a funny person” and “I laugh frequently” people’s responses to the questions plummet around age 23 (ironically, around the average age of the students in our class). And it makes sense. We go to work, and all of a sudden we’re very important, and we’re very efficient, and we’re no longer allowed to leave the house in sweatpants or count ice cream as a food group. Plus, some of us have a scarring moment of a joke gone wrong — so we stop trying.

NB: This is a big problem because humor is a superpower — one that’s incredibly underleveraged in business. There are studies linking the use of humor to perceived status, confidence, competence, and improved creative problem solving. Yet, few of us consider humor capable of these effects — it’s often considered to be a distraction, but it can be a real asset.

JA: Also, humor can build bonds and strengthen relationships. This is particularly important because workplaces are killing us. Recent research by Jeff Pfeffer, Stefanos Zenios, and Joel Goh shows that workplace stress — fueled long hours, job insecurity and lack of work-life balance — to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs.

Our goal is to help infuse the kind of humanity, humility, and intellectual perspective that only humor can bring.
Naomi Bagdonas, lecturer in management

NB: Laughter make us more physically resilient to the tensions and stressors of corporate life. It releases oxytocin, which facilitates social bonding and increases trust. When people laugh together at work, relationships improve, and people feel more valued and trusted, mitigating the effects of these workplace stressors.

JA: Hiroki Asai used to be the head of marketing communications at Apple and led over a thousand creatives — he says that fear kills creativity, and that humor is our most powerful tool to drive fear out of the system. In this context, lack of humor can be a huge liability. Beyond just creative groups though, we think that humor brings humanity and empathy back into business in a way that’s rare.

NB: So we’re trying to instill a mindset that taking your work seriously doesn’t mean you need to be serious all of the time. In fact, being serious and being humorous can be in service of each other. The right balance of levity and gravity gives power to both.

To help students find that balance, we developed the course to be anchored in practical applications. We focus on activities that the students would do or use outside the classroom — like writing a bio with humor, creating a company pitch, or delivering a speech.

JA: Most of the activities involve business contexts where humor is often not found, but if used, could serve the students well — to disarm, build bonds, or just differentiate. Our hope is that these students go on to instill a mindset of levity into the organizations they lead. That is, build humor into the culture and practices of every day, from All Hands Meetings, to new employee welcomes, to otherwise mundane logistics emails.

NB: Robin Williams said, “you’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” We’re trying to help our students keep the pilot light on.

Read the full story originally published in the September 2017 issue of Gentry magazine.

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