Leading with humour

Culture  Leadership
24 June, 2019

Using the right kind of humour can boost creative thinking, bring your team closer and make you a stronger leader

Several years ago, in my previous job at Bain & Co, I was presenting to a group of senior clients. It was a long 4-hour discussion in a large room. There were more than 25 people and some had joined by video conference. I was using a wireless microphone. I had been drinking a lot of water to keep going through the presentation. Towards the end of the meeting, while the group was chatting amongst themselves, I decided to slink away to use the bathroom. When I came back after a few minutes, I received a standing ovation. The CEO client said “Vivek, as soon as you left the room, we were very surprised to hear so much rain!”. Mortified, I clearly thought that it was the end of my career! To make me feel better, one of the senior partners at Bain said , “Vivek, as least it was only rain and not thunder!” For years after, this incident about the perils of leaving a wireless microphone on became part of the folklore at Bain. And many colleagues and teams have laughed so much about it over the years.

We all know how a quick joke or a funny anecdote instantly relaxes you and reduces stress, making you feel refreshed and happier. And it doesn’t stop there. As Alison Beard notes in her Harvard Business Review article, Leading with Humour, the advantages extend to business as well:

According to research from institutions as serious as Wharton, MIT, and London Business School, every chuckle or guffaw brings with it a host of business benefits. Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity. 

Brand executive Eric Tsytsylin in a video recorded while he was at Stanford Business School (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nju6yel062Ymentions that while babies laugh about 400 times a day; adults over 35 laugh only about 15 times a day. We are in the midst of a “laughter drought” and this is particularly serious in the world of business. A Gallup study in the US found that people laugh significantly less on weekdays than on weekends.

The deft use of humour can play a key role in your success as a leader, making you appear more competent and confident, which in turn increases your status. The two most valued traits in a leader are a strong work ethic and a good sense of humour.

As shown by recent researchthe deft use of humour can also play a key role in your success as a leader. The successful use of humour signals confidence and competence and  can increase status in both new and existing relationships, However, unsuccessful humour attempts (e.g., inappropriate jokes) can harm status.

So, drawing from this, my message this week focuses on how to use humour effectively in your leadership approach.

Here are some of the ways in humour can enhance your leadership, along with benefitting your team as well as the organisation:

  • Boosts likeability. Being funny is a great way to build rapport and increase influence at the workplace. Most people enjoy working with someone who can make them smile.
  • Increases approachability. Leaders with a sense of humour are perceived as more approachable. As a result, team members are more open and honest around them – which is crucial for effective problem-solving and the long-term health of the team.
  • Builds trust. When humour is used appropriately it reveals your authentic self, thereby creating trust and strengthening relationships. Leaders who can make and take a joke are viewed as more trustworthy by their teams.
  • Makes you memorable. Be it emails, presentations or meetings, the use of humour is still pretty rare in the corporate arena. If you can elicit a chuckle from your audience, you become more impactful and memorable.
  • Breaks the ice. Laughter immediately puts people at ease and relaxes the environment, making it an excellent way defuse tension and create an instant sense of camaraderie.
  • Encourages open thinking. The use of humour causes a shift in brain chemistry: you move from convergent thinking (seeing only one solution) to divergent thinking (seeing the potential of multiple ideas). It also increases focus and inspires new mental connections.
  • Enhances innovation. A work culture that welcomes laughter is generally less siloed and more open to creative thinking. People aren’t afraid to express out-of-the-box ideas.
  • Increases fun. Humour makes it fun for people to come to work – an effective way of attracting, motivating and retaining employees.

Of course, all these positives come into play only when the right kind of humour is used. For instance, if you resort to aggressive sarcasm, personal mockery or “snark”, your strategy is likely to backfire as people will turn against you. Moreover, humour is famously subjective, being highly dependent on cultural norms, personal taste and context. What seems hilarious to me might seem simply strange to you. This is one of the main reasons why people avoid using humour in a professional setting – it’s hard to get it right and easy to get it wrong. No one wants their punchline to be greeted with pin-drop silence or puzzled glances!

Other reasons for giving humour a pass at the workplace include the following:

  • Risk of offence. Since humour is extremely subjective, the wrong type of joke could cause your co-workers to feel offended or hurt – even if that isn’t your intention.
  • Unsure of your manager’s response. Team members are often unsure of how their manager will react to humour – will it count as a strike against them? Hence, in general, they’re more comfortable joking around with their peers rather than the boss.
  • Taking oneself seriously. Some leaders feel that smiles and laughter will diminish their status. (Ironically, people who take themselves way too seriously often become a bit of a joke to those around them.)
  • Unwilling to begin. If your workplace has a very no-nonsense vibe, you’re probably unwilling to be the first one to crack a joke. Being the only funny person in office can be risky!
  • No tools. If you’ve never used humour at work, you may be unsure of how to go about it. Do you start every meeting with a joke? Should you begin cracking one-liners? Does it make sense to tell funny stories?

A lot also depends on the prevailing culture at the workplace. At companies that value authenticity, encourage innovation and have a non-hierarchical approach, things tend to be more relaxed and humour flows freely. At more “serious” and hierarchical workplaces, however, people aren’t comfortable with humour and tend to tone things down.

If you would like to develop your use of humour at the workplace, here are six insights to help you along the way: 

1. Laugh with people, not at them

This is one of the fundamental rules of being funny in a professional setting. Make sure your humour isn’t directed at someone in a way that could be considered humiliating or offensive. Jokes based on discriminatory stereotypes are an obvious no-no, and sensitive topics are also best avoided. The idea is to make everyone laugh and enjoy the experience together, not to gang up on a couple of people for the amusement of others.

The kind of humour that’s acceptable also depends on interpersonal dynamics. A team that’s worked together for a long time and enjoys a high degree of comfort can indulge in some harmless teasing and cracking a joke or two at each other’s expense. However, the same approach towards a brand-new intern could damage their self-esteem and make them feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong.

2. Play it safe 

If you’re unsure about whether a joke is going to offend or hurt someone, simply avoid it. There’s plenty of safe and effective comedy to be found, so stick with that. The office is meant to be a welcoming space for all employees; hence, it isn’t the right venue to test edgy humour and push the boundaries. Telling inappropriate jokes also signals low competence and reduces your status. In her article, Joke’s on You, Jennifer Winter offers a great piece of advice:

An easy rule I’ve always followed is to keep things PC and PG. If I’d hesitate making a comment in front of my best friend’s six-year-old or my mother, I’d think hard before making it in the office.

3. Find inside jokes

Private jokes make team members feel “in the know” and bring them closer together. Think of a hilarious mix-up known only within the group, or even poking a little bit of harmless fun at an outsider. In The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, authors Peter McGraw and Joel Warner explain that inside jokes are a great path to team bonding:

Good comedy is a conspiracy. Create an in-group with those you want to get the joke.

4. Make fun of yourself

Self-deprecating humour is a great way to kick-start the laughter at work, especially when it comes from a leader. Being able to take an occasional dig at yourself shows that you don’t take yourself too seriously and signals that you are open to good-natured jokes from the rest of your team.

5. Choose your humour

It’s best to go with a brand of humour that suits your personality. Extroverts do well with laugh-out-loud jokes and stories, while those with a facility for language tend to be good at wordplay and puns. If you’re quick on the uptake and have a dry sense of humour, witty one-liners might be your thing. Remember, even introverts can bring amusement to the table. You know that friend who occasionally delivers a joke in deadpan style, or the colleague whose gentle teasing makes everyone smile? This kind of quiet humour is also valuable and appreciated.

6. Pick an approach that works for you

Being funny isn’t one of those skills that can be mastered by everyone. If cracking jokes goes completely against your natural communication or leadership style, skip it. Instead, work on creating a welcoming space for humour within the team. This way, while you may not be the one making people smile, you and your team will still enjoy many of the benefits that come with laughter at the workplace.


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