The man was almost embarrassed out of his job.
Joe DiNucci had just been named new sales manager of Digital Equipment Corporation and was the guest of honor at a dinner with Digital's senior research staff. During the dinner, one staff member said Digital would produce the world's best computer workstations in three years.
Unimpressed, Mr. DiNucci said, "If we don't do it in two years, it will be too late."
The staff member, who didn't like being upstaged by a newcomer, replied, "You know, you're really full of s - - -."
Uneasy silence followed. No one knew what to say. Mr. DiNucci quickly gathered his wits.
"That's an amazing insight," he said. "Most people take months to reach that conclusion. You came to it in 45 minutes."
The staff member laughed, the group was relieved and the dinner meeting proceeded to a productive end.
Humor defused that conflict, says consultant Malcolm Kushner, who described the anecdote involving Mr. DiNucci in a book called "The Light Touch." He and other "mirth doctors" tout humor as a powerful tool for relieving tension, enhancing relationships, motivating people, improving productivity and inspiring creativity.
"In a global, competitive business environment where everyone is selling the same stuff, you want people to look forward to doing business with you," Mr. Kushner says from his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. "Managing, selling, negotiating, planning, decision-making -- all of the fundamental tasks associated with business life become a little bit simpler when people are prejudiced in your favor."
Communicating a sense of humor gives successful people and organizations their competitive edge, he believes.
Joel Goodman, director of the New York-based Humor Project, agrees.
"There is a relationship between the funny line and the bottom line," says Mr. Goodman, whose Humor Project helps show people and organizations how to inject fun into daily life and work situations.
Research suggests that laughter is a powerful and cheap medicine for physical ills. Norman Cousins, winner of the 1990 Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, offered well-documented proof of the power of laughter in easing his own "incurable" illness. And studies from Loma Linda University and Stanford University in California have shown that laughter improves respiration, decreases levels of stress-related hormones and increases the amount of oxygen in the blood.
What's good for the body is also good for the boardroom, humor consultants say. A sense of humor helps executives and employees maintain high levels of optimism and productivity. That's important when a company is being squeezed by a market downturn or faces stiff competition.
Keeping and using a sense of humor can show others you aren't buried by stress and can handle pressure. Being able to laugh shows you can keep unexpected and unfortunate events in perspective.
"Humor affects productivity positively," says Art Gliner, who calls himself the "head joker" with the Humor Communication Company in Silver Spring. "When people relax and have less tension they can be more productive. Taking fun and laughter breaks on the job aren't a waste of time. People who find a way to put fun in their work, work better."
Finding fun at work is the task of the Joy Committee at Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., the gourmet ice cream company based in Waterbury, Vermont.
The Joy Committee recently declared an Elvis Presley Day, says company spokesman Rob Michalak, who gives his title as "PR Czar." "People came as Elvis, one person came dressed as a hound dog, one came as a record," Mr. Michalak says. "Fred 'Chico' Lager, our president and CEO, rented a limo and stepped out dressed impeccably as The King."
The point of all this levity, Mr. Michalak says, is to keep the troops laughing and interested in coming to work. "[Co-founders] Ben (Cohen) and Jerry (Greenfield) set the pace," he says. "Jerry has the saying, 'If it ain't fun, why do it?' He believes if people enjoy coming to work, their productivity will be high.
"Fortunately our company is enjoying good times," Mr. Michalak says. "But I think in bad times, keeping people up and lighthearted in the workplace becomes even more important."
Besides easing stress, merrymaking in corporate ranks can also inspire creativity. "I see creativity and humor as intimately related," Mr. Goodman says. "Both involve the same skill: getting new perspectives on old reality.
"What we like to say is: 'ha ha' and 'aha' go hand in hand. In developing a sense of humor you also tap your creative problem-solving abilities. In your own personal life and on the job, you can use humor to go from a 'yes, but . . . ' mentality to a 'yes, and . . . ' orientation."