Using Humor to Create a Happy Workplace

Ready to flight.
THE BIG IDEA: Humor is a powerful, largely underutilized resource that can uplift your organization. Today we’ll look at how Southwest Airlines uses humor to stay on top.


Bleary-eyed passengers who have come to equate air travel with their worst living nightmare have to fight hard not to smile when disembarking from a Southwest flight.

Immediately after takeoff, the pilot’s voice is heard through the overhead speaker: “Bear with me folks, this is my first time.”

Chuckles are heard throughout the cabin.

In reviewing the safety procedures, a flight attendant instructs, “In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have a small child traveling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are traveling with two small children, decide now which one you love more.”

The laughter continues.

When the plane lands, a flight attendant warns, “Please use caution when opening the overhead compartments, as shift happens.”

A Happy Workplace Translates to Greater Profitability

It’s well known that a healthy workplace boosts morale, lowers turnover, decreases absenteeism, and increases productivity.

When workplaces are plagued by negative energy, backstabbing antics, and gossipmongers, people turn into the lost school children of Lord of the Flies, forced to fend for themselves in a cruel, competitive, and unforgiving world.

Southwest Airlines understands that humor has the power to ease stressful situations, build rapport and cohesiveness, and soften the most hardened lines of communication.

The organization knows that humor and a happy work environment translates to the bottom line. After all, the airline has remained consistently profitable for the last 42 consecutive years.

Creating a Culture of Fun Starts at the Top

Who did Southwest inherit the funny genes from? Who else, but the zany, jolly good fellow by the name of Herb Kelleher. As founder and former chairman of Southwest, Kelleher’s off-the-wall antics successfully established the mood for the company’s quirky culture.

In one famously outrageous incident, Kelleher and Kurt Herwald, then chairman of Stevens Aviation went head-to-head in an arm-wrestling competition over the rights to a slogan. Stevens Aviation was using their “Plane Smart” catchphrase for a year before Southwest inadvertently infringed on their rights with its “Just Plane Smart” campaign.

The dual, scheduled for high noon, would proclaim one winner. Kelleher lost the match, but in a spirit of good will, Herwald granted Southwest permission for continued use of the tagline.

Kelleher knows that humor can disarm his competitors, dissolve hurt feelings, and mollify potentially litigious situations. He also knows that humor can ease customer frustrations and create positive associations that last.

Robert Half International, an executive recruitment firm, surveyed 492 professionals and found that 97% felt it is important for managers to have a sense of humor.

Max Messmer, chief executive of Robert Half, explained, “Managers who can laugh at themselves or difficult situations are often seen as more approachable and in touch with the challenges their teams face.”

Hiring the Light-at-Heart

It’s no doubt that Kelleher and CEO Gary Kelly are in touch with their people, and it’s this particular attitude that Southwest looks for in potential hires.

Ginger Hardage, Southwest’s Senior Vice President of Culture and Communications, explains, “What we try to show in our public relations and our advertising is the Southwest attitude. When we hire people, we look for that particular attitude.”

A candidate on a job interview might be asked a question about the last time he or she used humor to pacify a tense situation. Hardage also recalls a time when a group of pilots showed up wearing traditional suits, but were told that only candidates wearing gym shorts would be interviewed that day.

Sounds like a joke? To Southwest, humor is serious business. The pilots who changed into gym shorts got hired; the others went home. Hardage stated, “If people tend to be serious, stuffy and can’t laugh at themselves, then they probably won’t work out at Southwest.”

How Humor Positively Impacts the Workplace

Chris Robert, associate professor of management at the University of Missouri, studied the effects of humor in the workplace.

With humor and positive emotions going hand-in-hand, there was also a strong correlation between positive emotions and workplace performance.

Robert explains, “That’s where employee retention comes into it. If you have positive emotions about your job, you’re less likely to quit. And maybe part of that is because of the fun you’re having in the break room. You might get a better job offer, but it will take more to draw you away when you like where you work and you like the people you work with.”

Yet humor does more than create a happy workplace that increases productivity. Robert found that the use of humor is associated with two highly prized values: intelligence and creativity.

He explains that humor traces its impact to incongruity. A joke is funny because two seemingly disparate things are connected in a way that makes them compatible. It parallels the process of creativity where ideas converge in a unique manner.

When humor infuses the workplace, it becomes a breeding ground for happiness, productivity, creativity, and innovation. Also, when employees are feeling positive, the customers catch onto the spirit and everyone benefits.

In the words of Kelleher, “Humor rubs off on people. We don’t hire people to be funny, but we want them to keep their individuality, which makes them feel better about work and, in turn, makes them happier and more productive.”

So loosen up and let the laughter begin.

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