How to use humor in solving tough business problems

Beyond helping you lighten up so you don’t burn out, laughter stimulates creative brain waves. Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other temporal lobe and the ‘ah-ha’ moment.

Positive diverse people having fun, watching funny videos together.

As Rufus Scrimgeour famously says in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”: “These are dark times, there is no denying.”

Businesses today have no shortage of things to worry about. From driving growth and attracting and retaining employees to dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 and stock market volatility, organizations across all sectors are facing myriad challenges that affect their companies in a multitude of ways.

To say that injecting humor into the workplace can solve these challenges may seem glib and superficial. However, there is scientific evidence to show that it is anything but. According to research, laughter, much like mediation and mindfulness, stimulates alpha brain waves in the right temporal lobe that function as a neural mechanism to help our brains inhibit obvious associations so we can connect the dots of seemingly unrelated ideas in fresh ways.

Based on a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, too often individuals are caught in rivers of thinking, recycling the same ideas over and over again in a habitual manner. When faced with new challenges or unexpected events, we go back to these same ideas and are unable to find new solutions.

Breaking this cycle and developing truly innovative “out-of-the-box” ideas to solve real challenges requires humans to ignore obvious associations and ingrained thoughts through a shift to alpha brain wave thinking.

In the study, this was done by applying an electrical current to the brain. But in business we can mimic the same effects (in much less invasive way) through laughter. Laugher stimulates the same parts of the brain as meditation and can lead to increased levels of alpha brain waves. This enables us to emerge from the river of thinking and achieve new levels of creativity and problem solving—those crucial “ah-ha” moments.

So, should you start your next staff meeting with a knock-knock joke? No. Creating laughter to drive alpha-driven creativity starts with applying the tenets of comedy. It is not about telling jokes; rather it’s about looking at situations from a different point of view. When working on a complex challenge, the following approaches can incite laughter to drive new ways of thinking:

  • Inversion. To develop a breakthrough idea, start with actions you could never do. Give your product away for free, drop your spokespeople from an airplane, photobomb the CEOs of your target clients. Then look at those same ideas through the lens of what is possible. The leap from the impossible to the unexpected can yield the big “ah-ha.”
  • Repetition.  Once you find the humor, apply it again and again until it is no longer funny. Then walk it back to see all the possibilities you never thought of.
  • Comedic paradox. Mix the funny with the not so funny to find an association that is not obvious. Ignoring the obvious associations can lead to the breakthrough moment of clarity and creativity.

Of course, humor is not appropriate all the time. When dealing with sensitive or crisis situations you’ll want to be in beta wave, fact-based thinking. But solving many of today’s complex business challenges requires a new way of thinking, beyond the obvious. Humor and comedy are the tools to lead you to the alpha state and drive the “ah-ha” breakthroughs that keep companies flourishing.

Jaqueline Kolek is a partner and general manager of the New York office for PepperComm.


One Response to “How to use humor in solving tough business problems”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Because there is a peril of a PR pandemic–a huge and growing need for PR vaccination and remediation–it is prudent when using humor to be damn careful.

    Just as there is nothing funny about rape, death or other tragedies, three PR crises that may be coming should perhaps get efforts at humor to be filtered and cleared in advance by a team like this PR expert’s firm, purpose-driven PepperComm.

    Look at major PR perils that may be coming.


    Headlines say “Fed to Conduct Another $500 Billion Repo Operation” and “Fed to Establish Commercial Paper Funding Facility.” Even if 99% of people don’t know what a “repo operation” is or even what “commercial paper” means, anything at all that can cost government billions and billions of dollars can cost the public either billions in additional taxes or—if we add billions and then trillions to the national debt—reduced value of the dollar and reduced buying-power of our savings.


    When we see a drastic decline in the value of companies we trust for products we buy and investments we make, it’s like seeing in the window of a resturant we like a big Board of Heath warning sign. Even after the Board of Health warning sign is taken down, and after company valuations go up at least slowly and at least partly, public confidence in the restaurant and in companies doesn’t promptly return to where it was as if nothing happened.

    There is intense need for PR but most restaurants and other small firms can’t begin to afford top experts like PepperComm, and big companies sometimes talk themselves into thinking that a reputational hit will “take care of itself with time.”

    When time marches on, it may leave behind the detritus of retailers and other companies that should have used more and better PR to protect their assets .


    We repeatedly see shooting incidents when a discharged employee gets enraged, then gets a gun and goes back to the company shooting the boss and
    anyone else in sight. For centuries and increasingly, national leaders have been assassinated in America, Russia, Israel, Egypt, and scores of other countries. With oil dipping below $30 and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman pumping more of it driving the price down further, we can imagine the intensity of assassination schemes from Russia, other oil producers and even dissidents in his own country.

    Since even highly protected heads of whole countries can be killed, we can imagine the peril of corporate executives protected by security teams but perhaps not protected prudently and adequately by PR on how they serve the public interest.

    Because of what is shrunken—value of savings, confidence in our companies and safety of our leaders—it’s urgent to have enlarged PR programs to create protective goodwill. Also an expanded number of PR experts to create those programs, sell them and execute.

    I don’t now what are the “virtual” courses that educators at PR Daily and Ragan offer, but common sense is that the peril of a PR pandemic will be getting recruiters to bring in PR people who’ve earned PR course diplomas and won awards of excellence.

    As the need for PR achievers goes up, the rewards for their services become more lavish.

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