Humor is an underutilized tool for learning programs

Humor bridges power structures and working relationships to create common ground, strengthen connections with colleagues and increase the engagement and retention of L&D programs.

Senior leadership and HR professionals often feel they must maintain a serious demeanor at all times to be seen as credible in their roles. However, research has found that humor plays a strong role in not only connecting with employees, but also building trust, resilience and strengthening workplace relationships over time. Bridging humor and learning can make for a memorable experience that helps employees better retain the information they are exposed to during learning and development sessions and experiences. 

Humor has long played a role in how I have connected with colleagues at all levels, but I wasn’t aware of the researched benefits of humor at work until I first read “Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life” by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. Their in-depth research around the benefits of humor and levity at work confirmed what I had long observed unofficially: Humor bridges formal and informal power structures and working relationships to create common ground, strengthen connections with colleagues, and helps those unafraid of bringing levity into the workplace be seen as stronger and more confident, credible leaders in the organization. 

For L&D professionals, immense amounts of time are spent discussing the most innovative learning technologies, the best learning management systems and delivery methods, and other technical capabilities. However, while these tools and approaches are critical for the successful delivery of L&D, if the participants are not engaged with the content or connecting with the facilitator, they may be less likely to retain (and thus, use) the skills they are developing or growing. 

Creating instant connection through an opening story or anecdote that brings out some laughter from the beginning is an easy implementation that can have an incredible lasting impact. Whenever I am presenting to an audience, the first thing I do is make sure they know this is a place they can laugh – we don’t need to shy away from levity in the space we are in. On the contrary, not only should we embrace it, we should actively work to include it.

Convincing employees and leadership to dedicate time and resources to L&D activities can be an uphill battle. If employees and leaders are leaving these sessions and not feeling connected to the content in a positive manner, we know they are likely less inclined to retain and utilize the learnings in a tangible way that demonstrates a significant ROI for building and facilitating the sessions. 

Last year, Taneasha White wrote about the influence humor can have on the retention of new information; she noted that when information is presented with humor, not only are participants more likely to connect with and understand the information, they are also more likely to retain and share the information with others.

As you build your next learning sessions, consider implementing an icebreaker that brings some levity in a non-traditional way. Instead of the tried-and-true ice breakers such as “two truths and a lie” or “what would your superpower be?,” consider having participants share their idea of a hilarious email sign off, such as “Heavily Caffeinated, Ashley.” Instead of the anticipated “Sincerely,” or “Warm Regards.” 

In one training session we all created our HR taglines like the reality Housewives shows. The winner? “In HR, we don’t just know the tea; we serve it piping hot!” Cheesy? Yes. Memorable session? Absolutely. This type of approach with levity allows people to share pieces of their true personalities where they are simultaneously encouraged to have some fun, get to better know those around them and create an instant connection. 

As you progress through learning activities, make sure you are creating a space that invites and rewards regular use of humor and levity. Humor shouldn’t feel forced, or it will not resonate with participants and could have the opposite intended effects when it comes to connection building or retention of learning. Use humor at natural moments to build trust and credibility with participants and the information you present. Humor doesn’t always have to be cracking jokes – smiling, making participants feel comfortable embracing humor when moments of levity arrive, laughing at others’ (appropriate) jokes – all of these bring comfort to the learning space. 

Let’s be honest, it is instantly more memorable for most of us when we have fun during a training session. I don’t know a colleague who wants to spend an hour, or multiple sessions, in an environment where they feel they must put on their “super serious professional face” for the entire time, or that if they crack a smile they will be seen as not taking the training material seriously.

I witnessed this firsthand in a recent DEI training I conducted with a former colleague – participants knew this was a serious topic, with significant impact potential at their organizations. Yes, DEI training is and should be taken seriously and is incredibly important. However, feeling like you can’t go in and have some fun with even the most serious topics is where L&D can steer the ship into places you’d rather not venture. 

Which session would you be more likely to attend – “DEI: Impact of Unconscious Bias” or “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Show me Where my Bias Falls?” Even the titles of those two sessions show a marked difference in the facilitator’s approach to learning journeys for participants, but also demonstrates you don’t have to compromise levity to increase retention, engagement and the sharing of learning. 

A positive, enjoyable learning experience that includes humor can make participants more likely to encourage colleagues and others to attend L&D sessions. Start with small steps to integrate levity into your L&D approach. Make sure to track results of engagement with and retention of the material before and after you make a conscious effort to implement humor in your work. 

Are participants responding more favorably overall? Are they more likely to share the information learned with others or apply it day-to-day? What was the key moment they felt engaged with the session and the facilitator? You may be surprised how much a simple light-hearted moment can have a long-lasting impact in your organization.

This article was originally published by Chief Learning Officer, Talent Management’s sister publication.