Why Workplace Humour is the Secret to Great Leadership

Mark Twain said that “Humour is the great thing, the saving thing after all. The minute it crops up, all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations, and resentments flit away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” He’s certainly not wrong.

Funny Leaders are Better Leaders

However, a Gallup study reveals that people laugh significantly more on weekends than on weekdays. It also suggests that as people get older, they stop smiling and laughing as frequently.

Do you need to crack jokes in the office? A plethora of studies show that the workplace needs laughter. A case in point: research by Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, indicates that people fall off a “humour cliff” around the time they enter the workforce. This trend, however, when reversed can prove to be extremely valuable.

Humour is an effective and under leveraged superpower in the business world that offers a competitive advantage against peers, higher retention rates of employees as well as allows teams to build innovative solutions and be more resilient to stress.

“A sense of humour is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Organisational cultures that incorporate humour are more resilient in stressful situations as it releases oxytocin – a hormone responsible for facilitating social bonding and increasing trust. According to Bagdonas, this social lubricant also makes it “a gateway drug to broader aspects of authenticity and vulnerability.”

This holds 10x truer when the pandemic is upon us. Leaders need to be emotionally connected and cognitively vigilant to their team as working in isolation can be challenging. In these troubling times when we are socially distanced, it’s a real opportunity for leaders to enhance productivity and improve a sense of community in their teams by injecting some laughter into the workplace.

Humour in the workplace can also be both career-enhancing and a powerful social intelligence tool. An oft-cited Robert Half survey found that “91 percent of executives believe a sense of humour is important for career advancement, while 84 percent feel that people with a good sense of humour do a better job.”

In a nutshell, humour in the workplace can be highly beneficial, it can promote wellbeing, drive up productivity, break down barriers and create a more human environment. That said, humour has boundaries that must be carefully observed.

Delightful to Frightful: Transgressing the Boundaries

Though humour offers countless benefits and even makes you look competent, it needs to be implemented with skill and purpose.

Many of us know and love to cringe at Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s iconic character as an incompetent manager in the hit sitcom The Office. His frequent use of inappropriate, obscene, misogynistic and racist humor makes us clench our teeth, roll our eyes – and of course, laugh out loud, even when we know we maybe shouldn’t be laughing. Thus, favouring a teasing style, saying whatever amuses you and expecting others to remain impervious to your jokes can lead to alienation.

That being said, while Michael Scott’s cringe-worthy jokes aren’t the best choice, incorporating appropriate and harmless humour in the workplace as a leader can significantly foster a humanizing culture. At work, avoid heavily sarcastic comments, harmful jokes, and humour rooted in religious, sexual, ethnic, or racial themes.

Set the Tone

As the leader of your team, you’re the one who sets the tone. It’s important for you to make sure others don’t forget to lighten up and laugh a bit. There are chances of your team holding themselves back out of the fear of offending you or coming across as a jester. When conversing with your team or having one-on-one sessions, don’t forget to use light humour.

When you roll the ball as a leader, others will follow and communicate more candidly.

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Author: Paul Keijzer

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