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The ROI of LOL: The need for laughter in an uncertain business world

by | Oct 23, 2023 | Public Relations

The following is an excerpt from the newly released business-leadership book The ROI OF LOL: How Laughter Breaks Down Walls, Drives Compelling Storytelling, and Creates a Healthy Workplace, which is co-authored by Peppercomm founder and CEO Steve Cody and Chief Comedy Officer/professional comedian Clayton Fletcher.

If you opened this book hoping to find a quick fix or an exact percentage increase in revenues that you will get from laughing at work, we suggest instead you pick up a copy of Harry Potter Goes to Washington. We actually don’t know whether Harry’s ever been to Washington, or if he’s even ever left London. We’ve never even met him. What we do know is that the true effect of laughter in the workplace is achieved only in the long term. 

The ROI of LOLThe ROI of LOL is the culmination of learning about what comedians know that business people should know

It’s achieved over time, much like a wizard’s education at Hogwarts (see Dumbledore for more info). Realizing the results of a comedy-infused culture is akin to building a World Series winner from a perpetual last-place laughing stock (note: the ’69 Mets are an exception). It takes the intentional laying of a lot of groundwork and the commitment of a dedicated C-suite that really wants to become an employer of choice.

We’re not giving you a shot of progesterone to increase your home run count but rather a nutrition plan that you can implement to enrich your corporate body and achieve better results in the long run. Of course, there are short-term benefits to laughing today, and we’ll explore them herein, but the real return on investment here is the World Series ring that comes from infusing your workplace with a steady diet of ha ha ha. As a bonus, if you fall on hard times, you can always hock the ring for a pretty penny on eBay.

We all know how the world changed forever in March 2020. The global pandemic arrived and with it that most cringeworthy of phrases, the new normal. Virtually overnight, the ways in which organizations viewed their responsibilities to the planet changed. So did the relationship between the company and the employee. And it’s never going back to the old normal. And even as Labor Department statistics ebb and flow, and the pendulum swings from a labor advantage to a management advantage, the facts about laughter don’t change. Employees care about much more than profits, and so do smart companies that want to retain them.

In the 1987 film Wall Street, Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko tells his minions, “Greed is good.” We see his point, but we think laughter is gooder. Regardless of how greedy the investment community is, the fact remains you’ll never achieve your top- and bottom-line financial goals without a focus first on your people. Culture trumps innovation, strategy, creativity, and everything else you might think it takes to become the next big disruptor in your industry. And Clayton in particular knows a thing or two about disruptors; he’s handled more hecklers than a traffic cop in Midtown Manhattan.

Steve sees himself as a medieval alchemist and has actually transformed hay into gold in his backyard. We’re convinced that the workplace, while often stressful and at times as unpleasant as a tour of a Trenton sewage plant, should be healthy and that when it is, productivity skyrockets. It seems to us we need laughter now more than ever. Moshe Waldoks, author of The Big Book of Jewish Humor, is quoted as saying, “A sense of humor can help you overlook the unattractive, tolerate the unpleasant, cope with the unexpected, and smile through the unbearable.”

The role of comedy in the business world is evolving as we speak

Not only are we spending more time in our “home offices,” we now have artificial intelligence threatening our jobs! By the way, this entire chapter was written by R2D2. Nice job, R2. He’s a hard worker, but he’s useless before his second cup of espresso. Although the robots may eventually take over, one thing artificial intelligence can’t do is read a room. The robots may be able to respond to text, but they will never be able to deal with a stag party heckler in a comedy club or to sense whether or not the client is buying what you’re selling. Being in the room, in the moment, and feeling what’s happening is an advantage that only a human will ever have. A sense of humor, a sense of people, and a sense of the moment requires an actual heart, which the robots don’t have. No offense, R2; here’s another shot of espresso.

At our company, Peppercomm, we’ve been cultivating our comedy-based culture for well more than fifteen years

During that time, we’ve transformed from a small, uptight, top-down organization to one in which the senior management team is always open to poking fun at themselves in the name of laughter. Our culture is based on the idea that a sense of humor is a secret weapon that bonds us in a way that no training program, magazine article, or prescription pain killer ever could.

Years ago, Steve pulled a prank on an employee we’ll call Sabrina. Upon her return to NYC from a nice beach vacation, we congratulated her on being transferred to our San Francisco office, a move which she knew nothing about. There were balloons, greeting cards, a banner reading “Go West, Young Woman,” and lots of emails thanking her for all of her excellent work here on the East Coast. She was simply gobsmacked at the outpouring of well wishes and shocked that we would relocate her without even as much as a word of conversation about the move. Of course, we wouldn’t do that, and we instantly let her off the hook Ashton Kutcher– style. She laughed out loud at how thoroughly we’d committed to the bit and immediately began plotting her revenge.

Steve, a few weeks later, was on a vacation of his own (what else is new?), and Sabrina went to work, brewing up a wicked brew her namesake teenage witch would envy. With the emotional roller coaster she’d ridden still fresh in her mind, she conspired with a few coworkers to stuff five thousand plastic balls that one might find in a local Chuck E. Cheese into Steve’s office closet. When he returned to work, they waited for him to open that door, but as luck would have it, it was a warm day with no jacket required. The anticipation built and built, and it started to look like he’d never open that door and the payoff was not forthcoming. Never fear, though. Another employee, who was well known for always shivering at work in any temperature, asked the boss for a sweater to borrow. We all got our cameras ready as Steve proceeded to the closet to rescue this hypothermic colleague, and when he opened the door, it rained a deluge of plastic balls all over him that even Noah would have found intimidating. The entire office burst into hysterical laughter. Always a good sport, Steve laughed along and even kept the balls all over the office for a week to let us know how funny it was to him. Revenge had been achieved and those balls were the talk of the office for a month.

From the beginning of time, ordinary citizens have taken it upon themselves to poke fun at the powerful

Politicians, leaders, and even kings have been the target of comedy for thousands of years. Even the original leaders of the Ming Dynasty weren’t immune to having fun poked at them anytime they messed up. From Yangtze to Banksy, the average person has always felt empowered to stand up and speak out through comedy.

Of course, now with social and digital media, that once small pool of dissenters can now contain tens of millions! There are any number of examples in which a CEO posted a comment and then found himself the butt of countless sarcastic jokes that blew up the internet for multiple news cycles. When this happens, the best defense is a good offense, and self-deprecating humor is an absolute godsend when a leader is targeted. The important thing is to own it and do so in a fun-loving way. Because of the shared language of comedy, leaders must learn to speak in that language.

Clearly, Elon Musk only speaks in one language, and he alone knows what that language is. His countless polarizing tweets have antagonized millions. Is it any wonder Tesla’s stock fell 72 percent between November 2021 and January 2023 as Musk became an increasingly controversial public figure? Musk is an example of worst practices, and he abuses the basic tenets of comedy on social media to the detriment of himself, his companies, and his stakeholders.

In this book, you will see how Peppercomm and other companies are using the various styles of comedy to achieve a higher ROI

It’s not always easy to measure in terms of exact dollars (we can’t say whether you’ve reached your monthly quota of chuckles and pay you a corresponding commission for doing so). But because we know that culture trumps everything else, the return is real, and laughter should be a fundamental part of your business plan. You may not have a CEO who would laugh at a closet full of plastic balls, but it is essential in today’s workplace environ- ment to have humor be present. Whether in person or on yet another Zoom call, happy employees are the bottom line.

Also in this book, we will explore CEOs who remain ambivalent when it comes to employees’ concerns and desires

Just look at Starbucks and Amazon for the effect of leaders refusing to accept the realities and pitfalls of ignoring employee activism. These tone-deaf CEOs have chosen to not only ignore their employees’ pleas for the protections that labor unions can provide; they’re fighting back. But they’re fighting a losing battle: in 2022, Starbucks boasted a turnover rate of 65 percent,8 which pales in comparison to Amazon’s stellar 150 percent. We might need some more WD-40 for those revolving doors.

Happily, such companies are outliers when it comes to leadership. Leaders of today are increasingly in touch with their employees’ desires and needs. A great example is Francesco Lagutaine, chief marketing, communications, and digital officer of M&T Bank. Headquartered in Buffalo, the superregional bank has weathered many setbacks over the years. And believe us, in Buffalo they know about weather! Francesco is a subject matter expert, both about snow and effective leadership. He says:

  • Empathy is the name of the game. We all know 2022 was a tough year in Buffalo. Three years of house arrests, people sheltering in place, and all that kind of stuff. Despite having short commutes, turns out they still feel better at home. But there’s a sense of isolation that comes from being home and, I believe, a loss of perspective. I’m in the office, but I have always needed that perspective. It’s very important for people to look after one another, right? If I see someone who’s miserable, who’s always late, I can stop by and say, “Hey, what’s up?” It’s impossible to do that over Zoom.
  • We’ve done a ton in the name of empathy. Every week I log in and I just tell people what I did in my week. Recognize some people for their work. It’s a great way to keep things, keep people connected. It lets them know that I’m here with them and creates a sense of both empathy and vulnerability, right?
  • I encourage people to look after one another. I tell people when I’m stressed out and I need time with my family. I remind people what’s important in life, like spending time with family, taking time out. People are more comfortable asking questions in the virtual space because you can be obviously more candid hidden behind the wall with your camera off.
  • We have a woman on my team who is a therapist by hobby. She’s contributed her insights in so many ways that have improved our morale and connectivity. We organized a number of all-hands meetings, and she’s even offered to provide one-on-one counseling to anyone here who reaches out to her. That sort of thing simply didn’t happen before March 2020.
  • Going back to humor, for me, it works to take drama out of intense situations. I find humor, it’s a release, be it gallows humor, a self-deprecating joke I might make about my English, or letting people know we’re all in the same space, we’re in it together. Don’t let stress consume your life; try to sort of hover above it. I think using humor at work helps a lot with that.

Francesco knows what we’ve always known, that happy employees are the key to any company’s success

M&T, a company which has posted profits every year since 1976, is led by a CEO whose favorability rating is an almost unheard of 80 percent. And employees rate the company 4.0 out of 5. Clearly, they’ve struck the right balance, and that’s what this book is all about, finding the right balance for your organization. It’s not profits over people, nor is it people over profits. The ROI of LOL is people and profits! 

Steve Cody and Clayton Fletcher
Peppercomm CEO Steve Cody and Chief Comedy Officer Clayton Fletcher are the Authors of The ROI of LOL.

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