One Laugh at a Time

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 25, 2008

"LEGO has announced that they are shutting down their U.S. factory and moving it to Mexico. LEGO employees say it's their fault because they made the factory too easy to take apart and rebuild somewhere else." 
Conan O'Brien

Last week we reflected on the subject of "Holy Humor." There certainly are a lot of humorous things that happen in and around church life. 

Humor can also enhance the workplace. For traditional companies, having fun can certainly be viewed with great suspicion. Katherine Hudson, President and CEO of the Brady Corporation, observed the role of humor in the marketplace in her article "Transforming a Conservative Company  One Laugh at a Time" (Harvard Business Review; July-August 2001). 

Without apology she said, "So perhaps it comes as a surprise that, for the past seven years, we've made fun an integral part of the culture at Brady Corporation — not simply as an end in itself but for serious business reasons. We've found that getting people to loosen up and enjoy themselves has numerous benefits." 

Prior to Hudson's leadership, coffee was not even allowed at Brady employee's desks until August 1, 1989. Yes, their people remember exactly the date that policy changed. 

They were known for their "culture of no," an inclination to deny creative initiative. Today, in the words of their official corporate cheer they have gone "from no to yo." 

In Hudson's words, "Having fun wasn't the core idea. Basically, I wanted to promote an open, collaborative, and trusting can-do atmosphere." 

As I read her article I pondered the various employment cultures I have encountered over the years. Some have been extremely serious with the sense that everyone was moving tentatively through their assignment, anxious about making one mistake or doing anything to frustrate the "powers that be." 

I also remember visiting a college in England where we were on campus for just a few hours. I still can hear their laughter and see the obvious fun they were all having. It really was a refreshing place to experience. 

Hudson suggests six principles of serious fun: 

  • People aren't always as stiff as they seem. Although Ian was raised in England with a serious British accent and style, his dry humor often took me by surprise. I still laugh at some of the things he said and did.
  • Laughter is an international language. My Korean friends smile with me as I try to use my chopsticks. I can still hear one of my dearest Korean friends laugh when I showed him the set I carry in my briefcase for practice.
  • You can still cut up during tough times. We've all heard the old definition of humor, i.e. tragedy + time. How often do we find humor in the most difficult circumstances?
  • Fun can be institutionalized. A tradition has developed on our last chapel service of the fall semester. Everyone is ready for final exams and the Christmas holidays. One of the highlights of that service is the creative humor of our Student Life Department as they rewrite the words of Christmas carols to capture humorous highlights of the semester.
  • Fun can be ad hoc. A funny card or hallway joke or gentle prank can accomplish more good will than a formal affirmation.
  • The CEO sets the tone. Every leadership influence makes a difference, for better or worse. Leaders who use humor wisely set a tone for the entire organization.
Even the wise King Solomon amazed the Queen of Sheba because of the tone 
throughout the Kingdom of Israel. In her words, "How happy your men must be. How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom." (I Kings 10:8) 

The Brady Corporation's philosophy demonstrates that a company can be "fun and friendly for its employees and fierce with its competitors." 

Keep smiling. It will help you and everyone around you. 

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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