Tension fills the conference room a few weeks before the Client release. The Client team wasn’t told that the Database team had added a parameter to the AddClient API. The Client broke spectacularly—the latest in a series of miscommunication and miscues by both teams. Only now were the Client and Database teams meeting to discuss the breaking change. Contempt oozes over the conference room table.
The Database lead program manager (PM) opens the meeting with, “As you know, the Client team requested the new parameter for AddClient a couple of months ago. [Uproar.] We realize now that the change came in too late. We’ve rolled back the AddClient API and removed the new parameter. We’ve got a build running and should have the fix for the Client team later today.”
After a moment, the Database lead PM adds, “By the way, did we tell you about the other new API function?” The room gets quiet. Everyone stares at the Database PM. The PM looks around the table and then says, “It’s called ‘BlindsideClientTeam.’ We’re thinking of adding a parameter called ‘lastMinute.’”
This opening doesn’t follow the usual I.M. Wright rant, because the column is about using humor to diffuse rants. It’s a holiday meta topic for “Hard Code.”
How do you show a partner that you’re sorry for a mistake, understand the trouble you’ve caused, and rebuild trust between your teams?
Humor in these situations works wonders. You can’t lead with humor—it’s a serious situation. You lead with taking responsibility and outlining steps to fix the problem. But then, to repair hurt feelings and regain trust, nothing works quite like humor.
For more on handling a bad mistake, read I messed up.
Building and maintaining trust between people is difficult. Mistakes happen. When trust breaks down, relationships become dysfunctional. Teams that don’t trust each other tend to duplicate work or break ties entirely to mitigate risk. Individuals that don’t trust each other can’t compromise and resolve issues.
To build trust, you must understand each other’s situation—what’s important and what’s scary—and you must empathize. Otherwise, people won’t believe you’ll take care of their interests and concerns.
However, showing empathy is tricky. You don’t want to sound like some new-age life coach: “So you’re saying that if I repeat how you feel one more time you’ll slit my throat? You must feel angry.” This is where humor can make a big difference.
When it comes to issues people care about, like their time, effort, and future earning potential, people aren’t rational. They assume others will ruin their plans and cause them to fail at every turn. That’s why people resort to hyperboles like, “They change direction every day.” They ask contrived questions like, “Would it be possible for you to share your schedule?” Of course it’s possible, especially for partner teams—are we children?
You might think that responding to irrationality with a calm and rational response would be enough to quell fears. It often solves the immediate problem, but the underlying distrust still lingers.
To change the dynamic of a relationship, you must expose the distrust and address it. However, doing so is like exposing an open wound—it’s ugly and sensitive. You need to ease the pain, release the tension, and allow everyone to relax. Humor, when used judiciously, provides just the right laughing gas to reduce the pain.
There are five general categories for humor in the workplace. Each has its purpose (breaking tension) and pitfalls (not everyone or everything is funny). Let’s break them down.
As you can see, humor has many pitfalls, and not everyone has the timing and delivery to make people laugh. However, most people can find ways to break tension and take themselves a little less seriously. Use your best judgment, practice among friends, and find what works best for you.
The magic of humor is how it serves unadorned truth in palatable portions. It’s inappropriate to call someone crazy, especially in front of a group. It’s awkward to acknowledge someone’s fears in a professional setting. It’s incendiary to rehash failure when people are frustrated and fuming. However, a little respectful silliness can expose irrationality, break through barriers, and show some remorse without humiliation.
Of course, humor can be overdone or overused. We are professionals in a work environment—there are limits to what is appropriate. Knowing this, there are times when it’s important to tell the truth clearly and candidly. Humor can provide a bridge that enables us to speak openly and honestly about difficult issues when we need to most. Doing so resolves problems, builds trust, and permits us to move forward as one team to solve the real problems facing our customers.
You can read more about humor in the workplace from the write-up of a little known Microsoft Engineering Competency: Humor that includes a recommended reading list.