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No Joke: Stand-Up Comedy Training for Employees Can Improve Workplace Culture

Infusing comedy into workplace culture has the potential to improve employee communication skills, build a tight-knit team of employees and lower turnover rate.

January 16, 2013

When Steve Cody was in the midst of a midlife crisis, he turned to performing stand-up comedy to help him shake it.

After his first time on stage, he was encouraged to continue his new-found craft by comedy coach Clayton Fletcher. And after two years of doing stand-up comedy every week, Cody, co-founder of New York-based public relations firm Peppercomm, realized his newly developed hobby was having a positive impact on his professional life.

Believing his entire organization could benefit from the communication skills required to do stand-up comedy, Cody pitched the idea of having all Peppercomm employees go through stand-up training to his senior management team. At first his idea was met with resistance, but soon Cody's colleagues saw the potential benefits stand-up comedy training could have on their organization. And thus, Peppercomm's Comedy Experience Program was born.

The Comedy Experience is "a workshop intended to be a management training and development program and a cultural change agent," Cody said. The program "really comes in handy for companies that are having morale issues, departments that aren't working together very well, or they're in a post-merger/acquisition situation where there are two different cultures that are trying to get along."

Peppercomm holds two to three internal Comedy Experience workshops per month, and one external event for clients per month, said Fletcher, now Peppercomm's (and likely the world's only) chief comedy officer. A single workshop can last a half-day or be as long as an entire day, depending on how many participants there are.

Workshops are broken up into three different segments. The first segment consists of talks from both Cody and Fletcher on the importance of comedy and how it can benefit business performance; in the second segment individual participants give their own three to four minute stand-up routines, which are taped, and in the final segment Cody and Fletcher sit down with every single participant and review their taped performance to offer constructive criticism.

Susan Heathfield, Management Consultant and the writer of the Human Resources page at About.com, views the Comedy Experience as a mostly beneficial training tool. "Anything like these kinds of activities where people become more comfortable presenting are positive. Plus, even if you don't make presentations it can help you be more comfortable speaking up at a meeting," she said.

The goal of the Comedy Experience, according to Cody, is to create better listeners and storytellers.

"At Peppercomm we've been doing [the Comedy Experience] for six or seven years and it's really changed our culture in a positive way. We had a good culture to begin with, but now we've got a culture where self-deprecating humor is a way of speaking and our way of emailing to one another," said Cody, who believes poking fun at yourself brings a certain level of humility and humanity to Peppercomm's workplace culture.

Although that style of humor works for Peppercomm, it doesn't work for every corporate culture, said Fletcher. "I feel like a sense of humor is like a fingerprint: no two are exactly alike. What we try to do is figure out what makes you funny, and then figure out how to use that in the workplace," he said.

Heathfield believes the biggest disadvantage of this kind of program is the anxiety and fear employees may have in the days leading up to it, which may outweigh its benefits. "The way in which you approach this can make all the difference. I am a fan of helping people move out of their comfort zones, but you have to be really aware of the fact that something like this can really traumatize certain individuals."

One of most important benefits of having employees go through a Comedy Experience workshop, Fletcher says, is that brings them closer together. "The group, invariably, they bond. They become like a team rooting for each other. … Because we come from a place of vulnerability and authenticity, people are encouraged to tell true stories. They end up learning things about their co-workers they may have never known."

As a result of the strong team-building through the frequent comedy training, Peppercomm enjoys a low turnover rate, said Cody. "I think it's because [the employees] have all been through this comedy thing and they've heard each other talk about their neurotic moms or their insomniac boyfriends or whatever. And it's a different way of getting to know your cube-mate. It's broken down all sorts of barriers for us."

Max Mihelich is Workforce's editorial intern. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.