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.’”

Eric Aside

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.”

It’s a funny thing

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?

  • You could apologize, though apologies alone sound hollow when people and schedules are compromised.
  • You could show your understanding by recounting the situation, though that often seems patronizing.
  • You should take steps to fix the problem and avoid it going forward, but those take time, and you need to repair relationships now.

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.

Eric Aside

For more on handling a bad mistake, read I messed up.

No one understands me

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.

That is illogical

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.

The fab five

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.

  1. Self-deprecation. Making fun of yourself is one of the easiest and least risky forms of humor to use at work to diffuse tension. Purpose: acknowledge bad behavior or weaknesses without being mean. The Database lead PM used self-deprecation to admit his team’s culpability to the Client team. Pitfalls: appearing insincere by not acknowledging true weaknesses. The classic example is when someone admits to “caring too much” (not funny).
  2. Absurd contradiction. Denying a request or fact that is not remotely in dispute can make all disputes appear silly. Purpose: expose distrust or disagreement in a nonthreatening manner, and encourage your peers to feel at ease. A disarming response to “Would it be possible for you to share your schedule?” is “No.” Wait for your partner to be startled, and then follow with “I’d be happy to send you the URL.” Pitfalls: appearing passive aggressive or even sincerely aggressive. You can seem passive aggressive if your denial appears sarcastic instead of absurd (don’t embellish). You’ll seem sincerely aggressive if the issue is so emotionally charged (perhaps a bad history) that everyone thinks your denial is serious regardless of how crazy you make it.
  3. Broad exaggeration. Making a significant overstatement or understatement can be funny while providing perspective. Purpose: draw attention to something important without sounding whiny. An overstatement, like “The build broke 57 times yesterday,” draws attention to build problems without being too particular or placing blame. An understatement, like listing “future earning potential” among lighter things people care about, actually adds more weight to the area than saying “it’s so important.” Pitfalls: appearing serious and thus whiny, uninformed, or uncaring. Don’t exaggerate a little—people might miss it. Don’t make a big show of your exaggeration—people might think you’re not joking. Large overstatements and understatements work best with a straight face and solemn delivery.
  4. Outrageous ideation. Suggesting radical ideas during a brainstorming session to enhance creativity. Purpose: get people thinking “outside the box.” Say you are brainstorming ideas for driving resiliency of a service. One idea could be “Blow up the datacenter.” That’s a ridiculous idea, but could lead to people considering testing random service shutdowns and geo-distribution that they might not have otherwise considered. Pitfalls: appearing dumb, flippant, or unconstructive. Outrageous ideation can be overdone easily. Be sure to have a number of pragmatic ideas as well and start with some of those.
  5. Deliberate dissonance. Intentionally breaking the flow of an interaction to shift direction (a generalization of absurd contradiction and outrageous ideation). Purpose: relieve tension and change the dynamic of the conversation. When people are introducing themselves and mentioning the important jobs they’ve had as if it were a contest, you can lower the pompous pretense with “I’m a former McDonald’s fry cook.” Pitfalls: appearing foolish, unprofessional, and even offensive. Dissonance is strongly based on cultural norms and personal background. Your witty comments can easily fail to amuse the wrong audience. I usually have serious things to add in case people miss the joke. I then treat my witticisms like a dog whistle that only a few may hear.

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.

Tell the truth

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.

Eric Aside

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.