Work-Life Balance Secret: Nurture Your Sense of Human

05/04/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2016

Sometimes, the workplace can be a cold and mechanistic place. You've just come out of a meeting with seven new action items, a change in strategic direction and a boatload of doubts.

But what you've emerged with is nothing compared to what you're without. As you leave that dank conference room, you notice you have no motivation, no sense of humor and no hope of getting home in time for dinner with the family.

In those dark times, it's easy to feel like a cyborg -- a machine-like means to a heartless corporate end. It's easy to forget that you're human. Equally important, it's easy to forget that all of your coworkers -- and even your boss -- are humans too. In those dark times, more than ever, it's imperative that you keep your sense of human. The sense of human is a term I made up to comprise a host of strengths and existential experiences that make us the versatile, resilient, fun-loving beings we all are at heart. Mostly social in nature, these collected experiences act as rewards to and defenders of the five needs that David Rock summarizes with the acronym SCARF: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

SCARF makes us human

I have written about SCARF before, but let me take a minute to review. Those five human social needs are perceived by our brains as important not just to our self-esteem, but to our very survival. Just as our caveman selves would run toward a juicy cow who has just been slaughtered, and away from the saber-toothed tiger that wants to slaughter us (attention vegetarians and anthropologists: I apologize for offending with gruesome imagery and blatant disregard for facts), we want to approach things that reward those five needs, and we want to avoid things that threaten them in any way.

Allow me just one more minute to summarize what each of the elements of SCARF means at work:

  • Status is our sense of where we belong in the organization's hierarchy. We are drawn to experiences that make us feel higher in the group, and we avoid those that make us feel lower.
  • Certainty is our ability to predict what's going to happen to us. Again, we like things that make life seem more predictable (thrill seekers aside), and we dislike things that make life feel uncertain.
  • Autonomy is our sense of having control over what happens to us. We want more of situations that make us feel in control, and we want less of those that make us feel powerless.
  • Relatedness refers to our sense of being included in our organization, our department or our team. When we're made to feel included, we're drawn in, and when we're made to feel excluded, we pull away.
  • Fairness describes the degree to which what we get at work (or in life, in general) is affected by what we give, or the degree to which we feel that what we get is roughly equal to what others in our team, department or organization get.
All five of those human social experiences have a profound impact on productivity, motivation, creativity and happiness. When they feel rewarded and protected, we operate at our maximum human potential, but when they feel threatened, our abilities to solve problems, focus on tasks and collaborate with others suffer.

The value of humor at work

Your sense of human is a powerful antidote to what can sometimes be a dehumanizing experience of work. It's an inner pulse that continually reminds you everything you work with -- including yourself -- is a person with a person's needs. It's an impulse that causes you to approach certain things and avoid other things. And it's one of the critical keys to productivity and creativity, motivation and happiness.

Distilled from many pioneering studies on motivation and neuroscience, the SCARF model explains that the human brain responds to threats and rewards to status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. When all five of these things are in their ideal state, we feel like leaders of the pack who know just what's going to happen to us, that we're in control and that we'll get what we deserve. Our SCARF is wrapped snugly and warmly around us. In that state, we are most likely to generate creative solutions to problems, to produce more work of higher quality, to seek out opportunities to be helpful and to feel happy.

Of course, we can't always be in that ideal state. Fortunately, however, there are a number of uniquely human traits that serve as powerful rewards to those five areas. One of those is humor.

Wait. Aren't we talking about corporate survival here? What the heck does humor have to do with work? Isn't work serious and hard?

As it turns out, humor definitely has its place at work, with benefits for the organization and for the individual corporate survivalist. Robust academic research has proven that the use of humor is positively correlated to executive performance, and iconoclastic practitioners like Mike Kerr have put that information to work.

We can use humor to reward all five areas of the SCARF model:

  • Status: When we use humor to make people laugh, we put ourselves at the center of attention. We also lift those people up with us.
  • Certainty: Humor -- whether in the form of jokes, puns or juxtapositions -- actually plays against our sense of certainty. One of the reasons we laugh is that the outcome is unexpected. However, because this threat is usually innocuous, the threat actually reassures us that everything is ok. (I'm grateful to Joel Warner, co-author of the book, The Humor Code, for this key insight.)
  • Autonomy: Our ability to make light of a serious situation allows us to exert some measure of control over that situation. This is why dark jokes often emerge shortly after a tragedy like Newtown or the Boston Marathon attack. When things get stressful and out of control at work, a joke can help us take back control.
  • Relatedness: One of humor's most powerful impacts is on group identity. When we laugh together, we bond. Those of us who "get" the joke, whatever it may be, know that we are part of the group.
  • Fairness: When our sense of fairness is threatened at work, we can lose trust in others and feel like work is a hostile war zone. Humor can counteract this threat by "pulling back the curtain" and giving us a feeling of transparency. A good joke has a way of cutting through the way things appear to be and revealing how they actually are. We gain more information in this way, which often allays our sense that something is unfair.
Of course, all of this assumes that the humor we're talking about is generally positive and good-natured. There's no question that mean-spirited, sarcastic, cynical humor can actually threaten all the threads of our SCARF. However, well-meaning, non-threatening humor can give all five of those threads a big boost.

Clearly, we're barely scratching the surface of humor's impact on our SCARF or on its key role in nurturing a sense of human, and we haven't even tickled the various ways humor can be used, but I hope you can see the potential here. The next time you're feeling knocked down a rung, like things are uncertain and out of control, like you're being excluded or that things are unfair at work, I encourage you to find the humor, draw it out and share it with others. Wrap that SCARF around you and nurture your sense of human.

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