Why Jokes Are Seriously Helpful For Leaders In A Long-Term Crisis - Greg Orme

Why Jokes Are Seriously Helpful For Leaders In A Long-Term Crisis

New research into how work changes our personality over time reveals people fall off a “humour cliff” in their early twenties. This isn’t as violent as it sounds; no bones are broken. However, it does mean there is a steep reduction in our sense of humour around the age of 23. It’s no coincidence this is when most of us get a “serious job”. Daily giggles are suppressed and replaced with appropriately-adult solemnity.

The survey unveiled last week by two business school academics from Stanford University, polled 1.4 million people from 166 different countries. It measured how many times they laughed or smiled each day. The results were dismal. The average four-year-old laughs up to 300 times per day. The average 40-year-old laughs 300 times – over the course of ten weeks. 

There is happier news. Leaders can reverse this depressing trend with simple changes to their behaviour. Naomi Bagdonas, is one of the authors of a recently-published book Humour, Seriously which features the research. She’s also a tutor on a new online course – Remotely Humorous – which explores the importance of workplace wit through a behavioural science lens. She commented: “We need humour more than ever. With this global pandemic, the shift to remote working, loneliness and depression rising precipitously, many of us have never felt so disconnected. When we laugh with someone – whether through a screen or 2 metres apart – we get this cocktail of hormones that strengthens our emotional bonds in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”

Funny Bosses Build Resilient Teams

The rationale for fun gets stronger when you combine the “humour cliff” insight with existing research into how laughter strengthens leadership.  Believe it or not, funny bosses are perceived as being more effective. Humour helps people to listen, to understand and to learn from a leader’s message. One study found a good sense of humour is considered to be one of the most desirable traits in a manager.

Being more lighted-hearted can even win you a dream job. Eight out of ten senior executives report, when they see a person displaying a sense of humour, they equate that with doing a good job. Researchers even found a direct correlation between the use of humour and the magnitude of a boss’ pay packet. The late Steve Jobs’ legendary Apple product demonstrations had a laugh count which outperformed most professional comedians. The anthropologist Edward Hall noted: “If you can learn the humour of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.”

Humour builds resilient teams. A shared joke transforms two or more people into a conspiracy by releasing the neurotransmitter Oxytocin into the brain. This deepens rapport, intimacy and trust. Professor Jamie Anderson from Antwerp Management School runs a popular Masters Course which teaches students how to leverage humour as a leadership skill. He said: “In group situations, humour based on shared references and stories is incredibly powerful. It doesn’t make deadlines and pressure disappear. However, by improving morale, it helps to dissipate feelings of isolation. This increases the solidarity of purpose needed to overcome adversity.”

The misery-scape of 2020 provides plenty of material for managers: the sheer tedium of never-ending Zoom calls, the social art of mask etiquette, wearing the bottom half of your pyjamas on a video conference, weight gain, mild alcohol abuse. Last week, I heard someone ask: “How do you avoid touching your face?” The dry response: “I try to always have a glass of wine in each hand”.

Be Yourself, More Often

Of course, humour isn’t risk free. Best to avoid accidentally looking fake. This is brilliantly satirised in the hit BBC mockumentary The Office. The boss – played by Ricky Gervais in the original UK version, and Steve Carell in the US version – is desperate to be funny and loved. However, it never works. He simply doesn’t have the necessary empathy or social skill. It’s excruciating because he’s unable to sense when humour is appropriate and when it isn’t. The result: he’s only ever unintentionally hilarious. Not a great look for any manager. It’s best to remember, don’t practice joke telling. Practice being yourself more often, with more skill.

The second risk is making jokes about people below you in the hierarchy, who’re in fear of answering back. To avoid this, I advise managers to first take themselves a little less seriously. Self-deprecation helps reveal authenticity, it forges human connections and often makes people think the self-deprecating leader is even more powerful than she is. As Joel Stein, author of a weekly humor column for TIME magazine, writes: “…don’t ever punch down by making an employee the butt of your joke. Instead, punch yourself.”

Any quip, however innocent, is a subversive comment on reality. This always contains a small gamble. But, then again, so does leadership. If you want to bring colour into the grey corporate world you need, at times, to take life a little less seriously. This sounds easy. But for many managers it’s a huge shift in attitude. To begin, take courage from the self-deprecating comic genius of the late British gag writer Bob Monkhouse. He remarked: “They laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”

 This blog originally appeared in my regular Forbes column.  

Please feel free to share with your connections on social media and elsewhere. 

To explore my work further, check out my latest book The Human Edge: How curiosity and creativity are your superpowers in the digital economy (Pearson) which won the Business Book of The Year 2020.

All right reserved Copyright © 2021 Greg Orme

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