This post is part of a 95 post series discussing the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto as they relate to business in 2009. Read more about the series in the introduction post. And check out the rest of the series!
Thesis #21: Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.
There’s a misconception in corporations that seems to stem from the manufacturing era. That misconception is that work and play are mutually exclusive.
Now, hang on a second. I’m not so bold as to assume that just because someone is serious all of the time that they aren’t a hard worker. Or that they work too hard. Or anything like that.
What I want to point out is two things:
First: this thesis points to companies and says “lighten up”. We’ve already established that “the company” is a construct full of people. Those people operate within a culture which is based on their own behaviors, but also with the guidance of the company’s leadership.
So in order for a company to “lighten up” as this thesis suggests, we’re talking about a corporate culture shift, which is a pretty large undertaking because people don’t really take imposed culture very well. Instead, “lightening up” needs to be a holistic change for the company.
This is hard. Really hard. Especially in a litigious country like the US of A, companies are afraid of humor because of the potential for harrassment lawsuits.
Again, the one human emotion that companies are any good at expressing, fear, and it’s in the way again.
Note: I have a little bit of a problem because I also think that this thesis is a little bit one sided. In order for companies to lighten up and take themselves less seriously, people (read: customers) need to be prepared to view companies as fallible constructs full of people, just like them.
I wonder if this is a problem that will be sorted over the course of a generation or two. Already, we’re seeing indications that new companies can enter an otherwise humorless industry and lighten things up.
Let’s look at one industry that many of us love to hate: airlines.
Flying the Friendly Skies
There is practically nothing to laugh about when it comes to flying. The experience sucks.
I hate waiting in line. The food is crappy. The seats are small and my legs cramp. Crying children. Smelly people.
I’m cringing as I write this because I know I’m getting on a cross country flight in 24 hours.
I have a ton of respect for people who spend their lives in airports and on airplanes, because it’s one of my least favorite places to be. I love to travel, but I don’t like the experience of getting from here to there.
With two exceptions.
Both of these airlines have competitive pricing, more comfortable seats…all sorts of amenities that I appreciate. But that’s not what makes the experience special.
Unlike the majority of their competitors, who view air travel as a sort of cargo delivery process, Southwest and Virgin have lowered their guard and exposed a sense of humor.
In the case of Southwest, many of their flight attendants have taken the otherwise droning takeoff and landing announcements and spice things up. I imagine there’s some scripting that the attendants share because I’ve heard some of the same quips, but in other cases, it’s been clear that the attendant took this chance to show off their own sense of humor.
My experiences with Virgin have been even better. Their company mission statement (not just for air travel, for the entire Virgin brand) reads:
We believe in making a difference. In our customers’ eyes, Virgin stands for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge. We deliver a quality service by empowering our employees and we facilitate and monitor customer feedback to continually improve the customer’s experience through innovation.
Not too far from the humorous Southwest attendants, check out Virgin’s pre-flight safety video:
As a side note, Southwest and Virgin are two companies very active in social media, both having numerous social campaigns under their belt and active Twitter Service Representatives (see @southwestair and @virginamerica). These companies have a sense of humor, and strong senses of human social interaction, as part of the company’s existence.
It’s not (just) a campaign. It’s part of the company’s being. The companies empowering their employees to interact like normal human beings (who have a sense of humor) instead of agents of a machine (that doesn’t).
Can this be done in a pre-existing company? I think so.
It will take time.
It will take leadership.
It will take commitment.
And it will take trust.
Hm. Maybe this is going to be harder than I thought.
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