Funny Business @ Your Library
by Denise Morgan
How many library managers does it take to change a light bulb? At least one task force and a light bulb strategy focus group.
Sample the reading on the topic of institutional change and you will usually see a distinction between “management” and “leadership.” Managers, like those caricatured above, keep the physical and human resources working. Leaders see a vision and move the organization forward by communicating that vision to others. Managers plan, budget, and control for short-term predictability. Leaders imagine, recruit, and energize for change farther down the road.1
In “Laws for Positive Leadership,” Victor Parachin listed ten rules to manage by.2 You may be surprised that the tenth is “Maintain a sense of humor…. People who take themselves less seriously are far more pleasant to associate with.” Where subject matter expertise (e.g., strategy) is clearly important for leaders, interpersonal skills are gaining recognition as well.
For instance, we all make mistakes. Rather than ignoring them, or becoming defensive, sometimes it helps to confront them with humor. For instance, one executive inadvertently sent out a blank issue of his electronic newsletter. Within the hour, he followed up with an explanation and introduced a Blank Book Title Contest that elicited 350 responses.3 This person stayed focused on the big goal (customer satisfaction), acknowledged his error (apologized), and helped his customers adjust (feedback through the title contest).
While the importance of humor is probably common knowledge, research bears it out. “Humor is a tool to study the social forces in an organization because the contents and form of humor reflect social relations, power distributions, and changes in both,” according to Wayne H. Decker and Denise M. Rotondo.4 These authors also cite George Barbour, who summarized humor’s potential as a managerial tool by identifying four functions of humor: it facilitates learning, helps change behavior, promotes increased creativity, and helps us feel less threatened by change.5 Decker and Rotondo cite a study by Wayne Decker of particular interest to managers and leaders. “Decker found that subordinates rating their supervisors as having a good sense of humor reported higher job satisfaction and rated other supervisor qualities more positively than did those who rated their supervisors as being low in sense of humor.”6“People who take
themselves less seriously
are far more pleasant
to associate with.”
Employees who are better trained, more focused, and more creative will give better customer service. Organizations often find that happy employees beget happy customers.7 That should make everyone smile!
While you may have heard of laughing hyenas, only people actually laugh. (Animals make other kinds of noises.)8 Laughter is what happens when an event or a story meets someone’s criteria for being funny. Medical science has proven what Reader’s Digest has said all these years: laughter is the best medicine. It has the effect of reducing blood pressure and stress while exercising your respiratory system.9 You may have heard of laughing clubs that exist for this purpose. Several websites explain the concept, including http://www.globalideasbank.org/site/bank/idea.php?ideaId=2254.
However, maybe you feel a little self-conscious sitting in the lunchroom laughing by yourself for twenty minutes a day. So how can you empower your inner Seinfeld?
- Start small. At the next staff meeting, present someone with an award. Perhaps she or he was courageous in the face of a screaming baby, leaking roof, or balky computer. A certificate suitable for framing is easy to create and present with a flourish (and maybe a Tootsie Pop). Recently, our most ruthless weeders were given such certificates, along with (you guessed it) Baby Ruths.
- Keep your eyes open. Truth really is stranger than fiction. When you work in a public library, you will be amazed at some of the circumstances of public service. For instance, one of our staff members found several thousand rupees (worth some $125) in a book while emptying the book drop. The name of the book: When Genius Failed. Then there was the time another worker found a self-improvement book in the bin. Inside was a visitor’s pass for the local Adult Detention Center.
- What to do with all those funny customer service stories? Our Fairfax County Public Library has an in-house publication that uses some of these anecdotes. Formal stories include reports about retirements and system news, but the stories from the front lines are very popular. Perhaps your library has a similar way to spread this cheer.
- Keep up with your professional reading. Certainly you don’t think I mean only professional journals. The Warrior Librarian Weekly has lots to offer, including humor listed alphabetically and in Dewey order. WLW and other links are at http://www.mjfreedman.org/freedmantf/librarianhumor.html.
It’s time for you to spread your wings a bit. You know your audience, and you have some material. How can you bring a little more frivolity into your library?
Recall that I proposed you start with the familiar. Those who have a background in scouting will have an advantage with my favorite kinds of comedy: skits and song parodies. Nevertheless, if you or your kids skipped Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts, there’s no need to panic! You can become quickly conversant with these art forms by visiting your shelves at 369.4. You will see that the manuals for leaders have some examples. Note that the “songs” are brief and that the tunes are widely known and easy to sing. Since the late 1960s, kids have crooned “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin lays an egg” to that jolly holiday tune. You can do the same thing. Let me share three pieces of advice from my own experience:It seems that she wanted
me to wear a suit of
leather and chain mail.
- Choose an upbeat tune that everyone knows. There may not be time to practice together before the presentation. If you distribute the lyrics in advance, the “chorus” will have a chance to get their giggles out before the big event. I try to find the real lyrics to the tune online. I use it as a guide for my rhyme scheme and rhythm.
- A three- or four-verse maximum works best, with lots of references to pet projects, hobbies, skills, mannerisms, and events that all will recognize.
- Generally, the time to present the “suitable for framing” gift of lyrics to the honoree is before the singing starts. If the song is good, the laughs take over.
Skits are sometimes easier to prepare. You can build a David Letterman-style top-ten list on an appropriate theme. Maybe you can come up with questions for a quiz show format in which a “contestant” represents the guest of honor. You will know the talents of the folks who perform with you. Perhaps some are willing actors, but not great improvisers. Some only need you to create a scene so they can devise their own lines.
One of my fondest memories is being recruited to appear in my first such entertainment. A colleague started a conversation about how important it was to have a good sense of humor. I agreed. Next, she allowed that it must be a blessing to be as tall as I am. Suspicious but grinning, I asked how I could help her. It seems that she wanted me to wear a suit of leather and chain mail. “Okay,” I said expectantly. “And why would you want me to do that?” Her answer? To play Genghis Khan in a spoof of The Mikado to honor a staff member with a similar name. Not only did I get to sing, but I also had a chance to lurch around in a studded leather helmet!
And what is a skit without props? I keep a few in my office because they make me smile: a plastic Viking helmet with impressive horns, several kinds of flamingos, and a stash of oversize paper money for those whose super efforts earn them “the big bucks.” I get many such items from the local dollar store. Another great source is the Oriental Trading Company, http://www.orientaltrading.com. We once got sixteen suitably ostentatious feather boas there for a parody of “Hey, Big Spender.”
Few of us are stand up comics. Since I usually forget the punch line, or confuse the sequence of events, I do not often tell jokes. Who better than Toastmasters magazine for advice on “How to Tell a Joke”?10 Two suggestions from Larry Getlen are:
- When you hear a joke you love, write it down promptly. Better yet, use your cell phone and tell it to your voice mail. That counts as your first attempt. Then rehearse until you get the timing perfect.
- Be aware of the sensitivities of your audience. Nothing is worse than the sound of no one laughing at your hilarious story or favorite joke — unless it’s finding out later that listeners were offended.
Now you are sent forth. Begin by collaborating with colleagues — you could each sign up for a different joke-of-the-day website. Start your next meeting with a kazoo overture. Oh, and when you close the library tonight, try yodeling after you lock the doors.
1John P. Kotter, Leading Change, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996).
2Victor Parachin, “Laws for Positive Leadership,” Toastmaster, September 2006, 18.
3John Kinde, “Humor to the Rescue,” Toastmaster, March 2006,25.
4Wayne H. Decker and Denise M. Rotondo, “Relationships among Gender, Type of Humor, and Perceived Leader Effectiveness,” Journal of Managerial Issues 13.4 (2001): 450-465.
5George Barbour, “Want to Be a Successful Manager? It’s No Laughing Matter,” Public Management, July 1998, 6-9.
6W. H. Decker, “Managerial Humor and Subordinate Satisfaction,” Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal 15.2 (1987): 225-232.
7Debbie Therrien, “Humour at Work,” CMA Management, June- July 2004, under “Columns: Human Resources,” http://www.managementmag.com/
8Peter Gorner, “Animal Laughter May Shed Light on Emotional Problems in Humans,” Chicago Tribune, April 1, 2005.
10Larry Getlen, “How to Tell a Joke,” Toastmaster, October 2006, 20.
Denise Morgan is Assistant Branch Manager for the George Mason Regional Library in Annandale.