It’s no secret that communication is one of the most valuable skills a leader can have. Certain facets of communication — such as active listening, giving feedback, and setting clear expectations — can improve employee engagement and productivity. But a less examined yet similarly powerful leadership communication tool is humor. Let’s explore how humor and laughter can improve well-being, bond teams, and foster creative problem-solving.
The Evolution of Humor
Our ancient primate ancestors grunted and panted during play-fighting — noises that were likely intended to indicate there was no threat present, and predecessors to what we now know as laughter.
Those who engaged in this early form of humor developed strong bonds with other members of their species, which played a role in survival. Humor remains an important survival tool as we navigate the stressors and challenges of the modern world.
Humor Benefits Our Well-Being
Not only does humor help us bond with each other; it has short and long–term health benefits. In the short-term, laughter releases endorphins, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and soothes muscle tension. In the long term, it can improve the immune system, relieve pain, increase personal satisfaction, and improve mood.
Our physiological responses to stress — muscle tension, increased heart rate, and high blood pressure — can hinder productivity and give employees negative associations with work. But humor and laughter can counteract these problems and offer teams new ways of connecting and managing crises.
Humor Benefits Teams
“Laughter, when it’s a shared experience, deepens empathy. It generates warm feelings, attachment, and friendliness.” — Psychology Today
Humor is a great way to bring colleagues together irrespective of hierarchy. When a leader cracks a self-deprecating joke, it can diffuse tension that may exist among their teams. As a result, employees feel more comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings, which can promote out-of-the-box problem-solving.
In fact, many types of humor inherently encourage us to think outside the box. John Spencer, a former middle school teacher and current full-time professor/best-selling author, points out that humor yields divergent thinking. “Prop humor is essentially a divergent thinking exercise in using an item the wrong way,” he writes. “A pun is essentially a chance to use language incorrectly in order to get a laugh.” While relieving tension and boosting morale, humor in the workplace can create opportunities to expand perspective and boost problem-solving.
Actionable Ways for Leaders to Implement Humor
“If you can learn the humor of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.” — Anthropologist Edward Hall
Create Opportunities for Casual Interactions
In the face of challenges, leaders often feel pressured to present themselves as serious and focused. But especially during difficult times, laughter offers a much-needed release and a way to boost our feeling of physical and mental well-being. For example, even during the Great Depression and World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hosted cocktail hours for his colleagues to engage in casual conversation and encourage laughter.
“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
In today’s workplace, virtual and/or in-person employee meet-ups are a great way to foster casual exchanges and opportunities for personal connection. On platforms like Slack, for example, employees can interact through a channel dedicated to non-work-related conversations.
Use Humor to Show Humility
Humility in leadership is paramount. While confidence is an important attribute of strong leaders, humble and self-deprecating humor can make them appear more human — meanwhile relieving the tension of power dynamics that may inhibit team members from expressing themselves freely. A leader that never laughs at themself can appear robotic, or worse, arrogant. On the other hand, leaders who show humility and vulnerability build trust in their teams.
Know What Humor to Avoid
It may go without saying but let’s say it anyway: Controversial, offensive, or mean-spirited humor has no place in the workplace. Topics like sex, religion, or stereotypes of marginalized communities are not only unconscionable but also destructive and divisive. Above all else, leaders are responsible for fostering a safe and inclusive environment for every individual.
How can you play it safe, or at least safer? Self-deprecating stories shared between peers are a good bet, as is light teasing among colleagues. And poking fun at a situation or project that a group or team is struggling with can relieve tension and build cohesion.
More Action Steps From the Experts
In their new book Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is A Secret Weapon in Business and Life, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas report their own findings after teaching the course “Humor: Serious Business” at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. A big takeaway from the book, according to a New York Times review, is that, “Humor at work is much less about wisecracks than about levity: the shared moments of lightness that propel relationships forward and balance the seriousness of labor.” So how exactly do leaders put this into practice?
In the book The Humor Code, authors Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and journalist Joel Warner make the following recommendations for how best to use humor:
- It’s not whether or not you’re funny, it’s what kind of funny you are. Be honest and authentic.
- If you can’t be “ha-ha” funny, at least be “aha!” funny. Cleverness is sometimes good enough.
- Good comedy is a conspiracy. Create an in-group.
- Don’t be afraid to chuckle at yourself. It signals everything is okay.
- Laughter is disarming. Poke fun at the stuff everyone’s worried about.
When we view the workplace as a no-humor zone, we can rob ourselves of its benefits. When implemented appropriately and effectively, humor can serve as a tool leaders and teams can use to bolster health, creativity, trust, and…fun.