By: Steve Cody and Clayton Fletcher

Humor in business is having its moment. And for exhausted communicators and leaders charged with motivating and inspiring employees, not a moment too soon. 

If your people are stressed/bored/burned out, you’re not alone. Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace report shows that 44% of employees feel stressed every day, and 20% feel angry!

During our early years of employing applied humor on the comedy club stage, we saw its teachings -- on being present and vulnerable, on active listening and audience reading, and of course on storytelling -- in action. But over time, first with input from academics, brain scientists and business culture experts, and later in researching for our new book, The ROI of LOL (HarperCollins, Oct. 2023), we recognized its remarkable potential to help businesses in new ways. 

Laughter has an extraordinary ability to unleash brain power. Not just by making us feel good, but also by opening new neural pathways that enable us to make connections that might never have come together without it. Laughing out loud releases peptides like oxytocin and neurotransmitters like serotonin in the brain. These powerful chemicals enhance feelings of reward and motivation. In their study, “Humor Associated with Mirthful Laughter,” researchers from Loma Linda University Health found that laughter “sustains high-amplitude gamma-band oscillations. Gamma is the only frequency found in every part of the brain. What this means is that humor actually engages the entire brain,” and like meditation, holds it there. That, in turn, helps us enter the much-sought-after, highly elusive “flow state,” that powers focus and creativity.

Imagine what that can mean for a tired, stressed, even angry group of employees. We've not only imagined it, we've experienced it! A few case studies we explore in our book:

  • A global tire maker team used comedy skills to create a clever campaign for winter tires that educated drivers while fueling sales. The tire itself was a new category for the company, and its sales and marketing teams felt anxious about how to achieve the lofty goals they had set. Collaborating using the same techniques employed by top comedic entertainers, we helped the company surpass even their own expectations with a campaign that got drivers' attention in a meaningful way.
  • A manufacturer of luxury automobiles was struggling to transform its business in preparation for what’s next, renewable energy-powered vehicles. The pressure the industry as a whole was under was leading this company to become siloed. Different groups within the company (veteran vs. junior, European versus stateside, white collar vs. blue collar) were growing increasingly mistrustful of each other. We created a multi-stage program employing the tenets of stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy to help these employees see one another as individuals and relate to their varied life experiences and opinions. This has led to greater collaboration across the board.
  • A major accounting firm was struggling to launch a change initiative in which they had invested much time and energy. We engaged a talented group of professional actors, musicians, and comedians to use performance art to illustrate in a hilarious way to professionals from different countries and cultures why the initiative had failed so spectacularly. They then worked together to co-create a new program while building a sense of psychological safety that has allowed the change program to succeed.

The applied tenets of stand-up, improv, and sketch can help businesses achieve greater trust, more effective leadership, improved storytelling, and a healthier workplace culture. While certainly not for every organization or every situation, promoting laughter at work can help energize and engage people at a time when they need it most.