February 1, 2021

Yesterday, at the tail end of our fourth event of the day and our 70th in the last month and a half, with people laughing and dancing to Earth, Wind & Fire, people who the company told us might be too depressed to participate, a young woman’s voice broke the festive mood.

“What the actual f*&k was that?” she yelled, her image a frozen photo of a millennial with long straight hair wearing cut-offs.

People stopped their jiggling and giggling. And then, as if asked to repeat it, she topped herself,

“I mean I am drinking a TALL BOY,” she yelled, “and I’m still wondering WHAT THE ACTUAL F*&k WAS THAT?”

A Greek chorus sang out from a chess board of ZOOM squares,

“Um, Susie, you’re not muted.”

“Susie. Susie? Susie you’re not on mute.”

“You’re not muted, Sweetheart,” a man with the voice of a sailor bellowed.

Susie kept going.

I started laughing. Her slurred, cynical mockery of every person having fun, being silly, engaging with each other about something other than COVID and work, forgetting they were prisoners of their homes for an hour, remembering that they work for a company that cares enough to schedule something genuinely, mindlessly fun was so shocking to me, I had to laugh.

The next morning I wasn’t laughing. I like to think that now that I’m in my 50’s one person’s opinion of me or my work is no big thing and yet I couldn’t shake her angry, dismissive voice. You can take the comedian out of the clubs, but you can’t take the clubs out of the comedian. Which is to say, we never lose the impulse to fixate on the one person who isn’t laughing. I told one of my teenage boys what happened,

“She should be fired,” he said, my protector.

“No, no, it’s fine…she’s just…” I replied, and couldn’t finish the thought.

Just what? Just not that into us? And then, because I’m not a teenager and fortunately don’t only think about myself anymore, my attention went to her. What prompted this reaction? What was so unusual about asking her not to look cool for forty five minutes, to be silly and laugh with her co-workers that was so disturbing? There are a lot of ways to wonder about an experience you just had, but the ferocity of her tone and the profanity, this was very threatening to this person. I also thought about the repercussions of everyone in the company hearing it.

Here’s what we have learned in our crash course about how to keep corporate teams productive, creative and not depressed in a pandemic: you have to create a psychologically safe space for people. That’s not just some HR PR buzz phrase. It’s the real deal. If you want people to continue to be productive and feeling inspired, or at least not suicidal, their humanity, their vulnerability has to be acknowledged and tended to. Mocking people for participating in something that makes them feel good is, in a word, poisonous. To persevere through this next year, you can’t afford to have someone’s unrelenting negativity corrode your culture.

Although likely not her intension, everyone heard Susie’s take on letting their guard down. No doubt the result for some was self-consciousness. They couldn’t help but feel mocked or at least foolish. The possible consequence of this is that next time, they will be less willing to participate fearing the same result by her or someone else. And likely it won’t be a laughter workshop you’ll want them to be engaged in, it will be solving a problem, or brainstorming ideas for a client, or speaking up about harassment or inclusion. But now they will think twice, because who wants to speak from the heart when you know there’s a real chance a person will walk out of the meeting loudly asserting some variation of, “What the actual (*&* was that?”

Firing someone whose cynicism threatens the psychological safety of a group, or at least the openness to new ideas is an option, and apropos of our current “cancel” culture. The bigger challenge for companies, the healthier response long term and certainly more in line with the Laughter On Call mission of connection is to figure out how to engage people who respond like this. To take the time to ask, “Hey that really freaked you out, can you tell us why? Because that was definitely not the goal!”

The consequence of being isolated for a year is that we are all more aware of the need for human connection particularly in the workplace. Creative people are going find innovative ways to achieve this. There will be resistance, pessimism and mockery. Maybe we don’t fire these people as my son suggested, maybe the real answer is to be curious. Not to reject the detractors, but to give them exactly what they find most repugnant, compassion, concern and genuine engagement. So when they stomp off virtually or literally, blurting out some version of, “What the actual f*&k was that?” the answer will be simple.

It’s your employer giving a sh*t.