Using Humor to Sustain Positive Changes

Change is hard. Laughter helps.

Posted Aug 22, 2013

You can teach an old dog new tricks and you can help a teammate learn new ways of interacting that make your team more effective (and more pleasant).  Every day I see people with courage to change.  Unfortunately, their teammates don’t seem to know how to help them keep it up. The first slip up or sign of the old behavior is greeted with eye rolling and an immediate "I knew it was too good to be true."

Cut them some slack.  It takes guts to admit when you’re the cause of some of the issues on your team.  It takes effort to change your behavior for the better. It takes humility and a sense of humor to deal with the inevitable slip ups. That’s a lot to ask. You can help.

My favorite example of this was a brilliant CEO with a tendency to dive into the weeds. At an offsite session, he showed the leadership group a clip from the movie Gladiator—a scene where Russell Crowe’s character leaves the ridge and then rides down onto the battlefield, jumps off his horse and starts chopping off heads. The clip had its motivational elements (Russell Crowe imploring his troops to “HOLD THE LINE!”).  Fortunately for me, it was also a great example of the issues with the CEOs leadership…sometimes he would leave the high ground of the leadership perch to get into hand-to-hand combat. After a really great discussion with his leadership team, they agreed that he needed to "stay on the horse."

The CEO took the advice to heart and was very deliberate about when and how he got involved. One day, he slipped a little. A team of people was planning a big corporate event. Members of the team three and four levels below the CEO were briefing the executives on the plans. A minor detail of the event planning came up and the CEO started intervening in the decisions. One quiet whisper of "get back on the horse" and he quickly changed his tune. "I’m sure you guys know more about this than me…whatever you think," he said.

It was a small thing and it was a big deal. The CEO had effectively enlisted his team to help him sustain new behavior. Not only did it help him recognize the issue, it actually helped them all laugh at something that had started out rather infuriating.

Since then I’ve heard all sorts of funny inside jokes used as non-threatening ways to convey important reminders about how people are showing up on their teams.

When you’re trying to support a new behavior, talk about the safe language you and your colleagues can use to support one another.  Have a laugh together, rather than at each other’s expense.