The Magical Gene of Irreverence

I’ve worked for a slew of managers over the years, and each has been wildly different, not just in personality or proficiency but in areas more nuanced and nebulous. I’m talking about their style — their approaches to their people and the tones they set for their teams. Among the many, one stands out: Rhonda.

Rhonda excelled at managing our team because she was a respectful, positive adult who paid attention not only to our performance but also to who we were as people. But that wasn’t all. In our everyday interactions, Rhonda was a lively, funny, sensitive, open, and tolerant leader whose irreverent style created a playful tone in our team. Under her leadership, our team trod an interesting behavioral line between standard corporate behavior — you know, what you should do, what you should say — and the crazy, cheeky, sometimes improbable, but always hilarious ways she inspired us to bring our best to our work.

For instance, instead of “Casual Friday,” Rhonda invented “Dress Up Friday,” the day we all wore suits or slacks, jackets, and ties to poke fun at corporate dress code. Rhonda signed us up for ballroom dance lessons, just for the heck of it. At a team offsite, she had us practicing stand-up comedy. I laughed so hard that night. She shared hilarious memes to our team, she encouraged us to let off steam, and she even welcomed us to complain about dumb (in our opinion) choices the company made. Our team thrived under her guidance.

At the time, a mentor told me, “Stu, make the most of Rhonda, as you’ll only get one like her in a career.” I was a newly-minted manager in my mid 20’s, and I simply couldn’t believe that. But now I know the sad truth: most of us simply never get to work for a Rhonda.

In fact, in their report on the state of the American Manager in 2015, the Gallup organization reported that 50% of people have left a job to get away from their manager, to improve their quality of life. That’s a depressing number.

Although Rhonda may have been a rare example, she doesn’t need to be. As companies consider what makes a great manager in their culture, I encourage them to look beyond the basic competencies and expectations of the role, and to seek also those special qualities that indicate the presence of what I like to call the magical gene of irreverence.

In their treatise on positive psychology, Drs. Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman identified 24 specific emotions that together form the field of positive experience. These positive emotions are a powerful antecedent of performance. In Rhonda’s case, humor and playfulness, combined with her vitality and zest for life, made for an intoxicatingly positive and therefore productive work environment. I mean, we would have walked over hot coals for that woman. How did she do it?

Unfortunately, too many of us have seen how humor can go wrong in a workplace. When humor is used to stoke a manager’s ego, when humor is used to cut people down, when humor is used to deflect from serious, necessary, or uncomfortable conversations — any of these can create an unhealthy work environment that undermines a team’s productivity. But humor and playfulness done well can create exactly those positive experiences that will lead to accelerated performance.

So how do you do humor well? What important components lead to a productively irreverent team culture?

Create Psychological Safety

You simply cannot achieve the tone Rhonda did if people don’t trust you. There’s nothing more repugnant than the so-called “smiling assassin,” the leader who jokes one minute then acts in destructive or hurtful ways the next. Psychologists argue that creating psychological safety is a seminal skill, a pre-requisite for effective leadership. In short, no one wants to go to bat for an asshole. You won’t get people to play with you if your brand in the team is rotten at the start. Healthy irreverence begins with trust.

Really Get to Know Your People

This sounds like common sense, but it isn’t always common practice. The old adage that “people do business with people” is as true as ever: you have to know each of your people at a deep, personal level. If you don’t relate to who they are as a person — what makes them tick at work, what dreams and ambitions they harbor, and what matters to them in their wider life — you’re not going to know how and when to positively trigger them. And you certainly won’t have permission to stretch beyond the formal, to integrate a friendship with a focus on the work.

Know Where the Line is Drawn

I want to be really clear here: being playful and irreverent cannot cross the line into disrespectful behavior or inappropriate humor. Your people must know that you know where the line is drawn and that you will not cross it — not in the workplace, not at offsite events, not on social media, nowhere. Further, your team needs to see that you will reinforce standards of appropriate behavior with everyone, including the crude joke teller on your team. When you set that line, remember that while the law provides some guidelines, with the protections it offers to specific classes of employees at work, you are under a broader burden of responsibility to create an environment that is respectful and safe for everyone.

Encourage Humor, But Not at The Expense of Others

Humor is a wonderful tool that cultivates positive emotions in others and builds camaraderie and fun into the experience of work, but . . . you have to know how and when to use it. If you’re a person who lives by humor, you already know that timing is everything. There are times you can turn it on and times when you absolutely can’t. The same goes for the jokers and devil’s advocates on your team. If the humor is meant, for example, to lift people up or to contribute to the forward motion of a conversation, it’s going to work for you. If the humor is used to send a critical message, to derail a conversation, or to build one person up at another’s expense, it can have serious cultural (and sometimes legal) consequences. You can keep it funny, but you have to keep it kind, too.

Create Opportunities for Your Team to Play

A happy team is an engaged one. If you and your team aren’t enjoying the work and each other, they’re unlikely to perform as highly as a team that’s having fun. Investing time, regularly, in the health and happiness of your team is essential. Off-sites, community events that give back, teambuilding programs, recognition events, and celebrations — these activities, which focus on having fun and building positive relationships — are as important as focusing on the work. So let your team kick back once in a while, and invest in the positive energy that will boost their productivity.

Watch the Booze!

A legal colleague of mine once said “Stu, whenever I get involved in resolving difficult behavior issues at work, I guarantee you, booze is involved somewhere.” I agree. Remember, you may be the “fun manager,” but these are not your drinking buddies. You are always on stage, and your behavior sets the cues for your team. Anything that leads to an altered state in ourselves is inevitably going to impair our judgment, behavior, and perception. Absolutely, under no circumstances, can you fall prey to impaired judgement at team events. You need to manage the “alcohol line” just as you would the crude or offensive humor line. Know where your own line is, and model this for your people.

I call irreverence a “magical gene,” but I believe you can learn and improve these qualities, even if you’re not naturally a Rhonda. If you’re not someone who finds architecting playful, spontaneous experiences easy, you can approach irreverence as a conscious strategy by talking to your team about what they need, talking to and observing each individual to figure out what motivates them and what doesn’t, and planning events that will resonate with your unique group.

Companies can build the conditions for healthy irreverence to flourish by choosing managers who exemplify leadership qualities that build trust, and who want to bring a playful energy and vitality to the work of leading others.

In encouraging irreverence as a leadership strategy, I’m not advocating a ‘culture of happiness’ with smiley, upbeat managers who fail to address difficult issues, such as confronting someone about poor performance, or correcting offensive or outdated attitudes. Rather, I’m suggesting that a culture of irreverence, built by both the fun you create and the way you manage the line, can develop resilient, high-functioning teams who love to work hard together.