Want to be a better leader? Try adding humor to the mix!

Let me tell you about one of my favorite people at work, Scott McDaniel. Sure, he is a super-smart C-level executive with decades of impressive accomplishments. But what is most impressive about McDaniel, who I’ve nicknamed McD, is the delightful way he leads with humor.

He sends the perfect memes to alleviate boring meetings. For the past year, McD has been on a futile quest to have our CEO jump into a dunk tank at a future employee event – just because the notion makes him, and the rest of us, giggle. The guy wields laughter like Luke Skywalker with a light saber, able to diffuse tense situations with a well-placed joke or self-deprecating comment. Whether he’s around in person or participating in a video meeting, the level of joy at work increases with his presence.

From my perspective in the office next door, humor makes McD – and so many others – a more effective leader. He says it has always been about creating stronger interpersonal relationships.

“My vocation and relationships at work are very important to me, and that’s one of the reasons that I enjoy humor with my colleagues,” he explained. “I’ve just found it to be less about laughter and more about connecting with others and bringing calm and levity to a situation, especially a difficult one. Humor can really help people find common ground and see each other for who they are.”

Lightening the Mood

Let’s be clear. When I talk about using humor at work, it doesn’t involve constantly cracking jokes like a stand-up comedian. You don’t even have to be naturally funny. It is more about knowing how to lighten the mood to help people collaborate better. Perhaps you use levity to connect with others or create a sense of balance when dealing with urgent deadlines. Maybe poking fun of yourself creates an environment where people can ask hard questions and bring up problems without worrying about repercussions.

Using humor well in the workplace can enhance your leadership skills. Research has shown that humor is a useful management tool, improving employee engagement. Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jennifer Aaker and Lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, who have studied the topic extensively, certainly agree.

In their terrific book Humor, Seriously. Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life, the authors noted “Today’s employees yearn for more authentic, human leaders. Aspirational, yes, but also flawed. Humor is a powerful leadership strategy to humanize oneself to employees, break down barriers and balance authority with approachability.”

Concerned that people might not take you seriously if you start making funny comments during the quarterly business review? You’re not alone.

When interviewed on the Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast, Aaker explained, “We’re worried about harming our credibility and not necessarily being taken seriously. And yet in large scale studies that we run and that others have run, the large majority of leaders really prefer employees with a sense of humor and believe that employees with a sense of humor do better work.”

Executive & Leadership Career Coach Darcy Eikenberg, PCC concurs. She has found that humor creates more happiness and fun at work.

“Everybody wants to be seen and heard, and feel like they belong while being themselves,” said Eikenberg. “Part of being ourselves is bringing our unique sense of humor and finding things that we enjoy inside our work. Happy is part of the equation of fun. If someone can be happy, proud of working there, and feel good about the things that they’re doing, those things feel like fun.”

The truth is that laughter can make any work setting better. Whether you work in a corporation, a start-up, a non-profit organization or a mom and pop-business, a little levity goes a long way.

Here are some tips to effectively use humor in your workplace:

  1. Create a culture that normalizes laughter. When leadership uses humor, it gives others permission to do the same. You might not think that a healthcare environment is a hotbed of humor. But when you consider the high stakes that medical professionals deal with every day, they especially deserve to bust stress through some gut-busting jokes.“The power of fun at work is when you wake up and think ‘yay! I’m going to work! We’ll have some laughs!’ The energy that that brings into the equation is important everywhere but I’ve seen its impact directly in a healthcare setting,” explained Global Health Specialist Candela Iglesias Chiesa, MPH, PhD. “It helps so much with the energy you bring to patients, families and users of services. Humor also helps health care workers get a break from all the hard things, pain and death they deal with on a daily basis.”
  2. Be willing to laugh at yourself. When you take yourself too seriously, it can create added pressure on everyone around you to do the same. Looking at the lighter side can help you personally while doing wonders for your culture. Remember, you don’t have to be constantly hilarious to make a positive impact. Poking fun at yourself when you make a mistake, or making an unexpected humorous observation can crack people up and create an opportunity for others to express their sense of humor.Gary Burnison, the CEO of global recruiting firm Korn Ferry, recounts a funny story about his first major live television appearance, where a pigeon pooped on his head while he was walking over to the studio. Laughing at the absurdity of the situation and himself calmed his nerves before that critical media appearance.“Humor is a legitimate leadership tool, and it takes a lot of intelligence (emotional and intellectual) to use it well,” he noted in that article. “It can become the release valve that lightens despair and disarms conflict.”
  3. Avoid inappropriate, aggressive humor. Making negative, discriminatory comments can be demoralizing, divide teams and violate your company’s human resources policies. Nobody wants to be that jerk, right? Think about the people you work with and be sensitive to their needs and the environment overall. Instead of making someone else the butt of a joke, blurt out a self-deprecating one-liner or limit humorous observations to a situation.

How have you used humor at work? What impact did it make?

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