Weaponized Humor

There’s a constant fight raging at Moz, and every other scaling startup I’ve seen. On one side are the forces of corporateness – trying to make the workplace a more stodgy, inauthentic, TPS-reports-to-be-filed place. On the other are the defenders of humanity and authenticity – the people who built the company and are, by and large, doing their best to make it a good place to work.

Unfortunately, those defenders have an ugly bucket of hurdles to overcome:

  • The long-standing tradition of corporate workplaces to be soul-sucking vacuums
  • The momentum that people who’ve worked at those companies bring with them
  • Laws, regulations, and policies that get more stringent with size and require
  • Increased risks (legal and otherwise) of abuse that come with scale
  • History (that one time that one bad thing happened? Yeah, that’s why no one can have nice things anymore)
  • Non-culture fit employees, who, rather than being let go (see this graphic), are kept on and change the company
  • Inattentiveness to slow, subtle shifts that are making things worse

Against these odds, there’s an unlikely and volatile ally in the fight for authenticity – humor.I’m not a very funny person. My better half has humor in spades, but I’m sadly left with only a bare ability to appreciate jokes (both the good and the bad). However, I do make it a big priority to inject humor at the office, especially when things are tough or tense (in fact, probably more so when those two situations arise). It’s actually something I’ve asked our managers to do a little, too – not necessarily to crack bad jokes all day, but to make sure that when things get hard, we remember that we’re supposed to have fun, and that there’s nothing so serious we can’t take it good-naturedly (obvious exclusions for things like a rough performance review, an HR problem, a sick family member, etc exist, of course).

Humor at work is hard – maybe one of the hardest things there is to get right. In the past, we’ve had folks complain that others on their teams crossed the line, and had to spend time working on what’s appropriate vs. inappropriate. There have even been a couple email threads to the entire staff that gave that head-slapping moment of “oh no… that didn’t just get sent to allstaff did it?”

But, humor’s an incredibly powerful weapon against corporate bullshit culture  And I’d rather take a few lumps from investing in and promoting it than the other way around.

One of our most heavy uses of this is on an email alias list that everyone at the company is auto-subscribed to, but some then opt out of (or mute by the conversation) called, simply, “fun@seomoz.” Here’s some recent threads:

I love how diverse the participants and originators are. There’s not a singular “office jokester.” When I’m on the road, travelling and missing the team, nothing makes me feel better than seeing a load of replies to fun-related threads (trust me, this team works insanely long, hard hours, so this is not a signal of anything but goodness).

And the threads themselves have a nice rhythm:

Plenty of Mozzers probably fit the Hipster bill (I’ve been accused of it myself more than once), but no one takes offense. In fact, I think this thread may have originated from a lunch or beer night conversation.

We have hard jobs, with immense pressure and a ton of barriers to overcome. But the work itself is supposed to be the hard part – not the office, not the team, not the meetings, not the expense reports, not the regulations around tracking sick days (which the City of Seattle recently changed), and not the culture. If we can make most of that stuff easier, we can build something special. That’s why I bring humor with me to this battle and always will. I know if I lose it – if we lose it – Lumbergh wins.

p.s. Humor without authenticity is even worse than no humor at all, and inappropriate/off-color humor can be even worse than that. I don’t try to pretend this is an easy tightrope to walk – like anything else with company culture, it requires grassroots participation, followed by encouragement/support to feel right.