Why Humour is a Core Capability Fit for Leaders

"If you think you are leading and turn around to see no one following, then you are just taking a walk." ― Benjamin Hooks.

As a leader and mentor, you should be be focused on supporting your team, being effective as a manager, and producing winning results for your organisation. You may be thinking there's no room for small talk and no time for distractions as you strive to get everything accomplished that needs doing each day. However, a workplace lacking in humour and laughter is more likely to suffer when it comes to the serious side of running a successful organisation. 

Having the capacity to poke fun at yourself and infuse wit into any situation is a commendable power skill for life and business. Humour lightens the stress of daily living and makes for an enjoyable workday. Studies have found that leaders with humour give a favourable perception of transformational leadership to their team members, which, in turn, has a positive effect on the team's overall performance. Also, that cheerful humour increases social support, and therefore wellbeing in the workplace.

Leaders who tell jokes about themselves are ones who demonstrates a kind of vulnerability that encourages their team to see the real person behind the title. The right kind of humour positions the leader if not exactly one of us, then one close to us. And now that so many employees are working from home, a leader who can apply humour is insightful and resourceful.

Not all humour is created equal, though, let's take a look at what constitutes positive versus negative humour in the workplace.

Positive humour as a soft skill at work

Most of us know when someone has a good sense of humour. These are people who are fun to be around and amuse us in an uplifting and inspiring way. They can take a joke against themselves, and they don't find enjoyment in others' misfortunes or in unkind things.

Here's how to cultivate positive humour as a soft leadership skill:

  • Look at the funny side of life around you. And this includes being able to laugh at yourself too. You can look at the lighter side of things when you lighten up yourself. Be positive, smile more and look at things afresh.
  • Sprinkle light-hearted humour into presentations. Even if you don't shine at joke telling, you can share a funny story now and then to keep your team captivated. Practice using humour in your speeches and keep in mind that good humour is humanising. Build confidence by asking trusted peers and friends to be your audience and give you honest feedback and suggestions for improvement.
  • Remember not to take yourself too seriously. If ever leaders feel a little too much distance between themselves and their team, good leaders know to lighten up and get positive to help close the gap. People love it when their mentor shares a self-deprecating anecdote once in a while.
  • Encourage fun as a stress reliever and to boost staff morale. Are your team members putting in extra hours working on a big project? Good leaders are aware that humour and fun in the workplace will nurture an optimistic mood. It will help their team perform better as a whole even during ultra-busy periods. They support fun activities to capture attention, create rapport, and increase social bonding between people. Great leaders trust their team to have their fun and work hard too. They always go along with celebrating birthdays, even during busy times.
  • Know the value of humour and fun in creating a healthy company culture. When people enjoy their work culture, they are far more likely to stick around. Great leaders know this and actively promote fun and humour to retain their team members and attract the best people.
  • Create lasting memories. If you are trying to get your team to remember something, find a funny way to explain it. Laughter triggers endorphins, which lock in memories in the brain.
  • Promote a relaxed, fun environment to boost creativity and build trust. Leaders who have a healthy sense of humour and know how to laugh with their team will create a trusting and innovative work environment. When you feel comfortable with your team leader, it leads to greater collaboration and communication throughout the organisation.
  • Break the tension. If conflict is high and tempers are flaring, humour can be like hitting the reset button on the mood. It will distract from the issues and make people relax so they can take a breath. Then you can restart the discussion from a happier tone.
  • Disarm an uncomfortable situation. Maybe you have bad news to deliver, like criticism or a bad review. Don't just go in for the kill. You are talking to a human with feelings.  Use humour to start the talk off on a lighter note and break the ice.  Now the person will be less defensive. Think about how to make them laugh so that despite the tough talk they can say: I will make this a good day.
  • Understand the connection between laughter, happiness and increased productivity. Humour and laughter create good energy which makes a more productive and effective workforce.
  • Humour is a vital soft skill that can be learned. Some of us are naturals at relating a humorous joke or story. Maybe you feel that's not currently one of your strongest skills. If you'd like to learn, contemplate attending a workshop from a local stand-up comedian or seeking a coach and mentor who can help you.

Humor that bombs

Remember timing is everything. It’s more about your well-timed response than anything else. Too late and people may not even get it.

Similarly when your trying to inject a bit of humour into your leadership style, keeping the audience in mind is equally important. What is funny for one group of people may make no sense to someone else. And this is a very important thing to remember.

Humour that hasn't worked can both alienate people and even constitute unlawful conduct. Always stay away from the following:

Stereotypical jokes or sexually suggestive jokes. The fast way towards a hostile work environment is with this form of humour. Even if not intended as inappropriate, jokes that are perceived as inappropriate are not suitable. 

Humour that targets any one group of people. This could be related to gender, age, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity or disability. Remember this is valid even if you make funny comments about yourself, as the words could still be construed as offensive to others. Humour with awareness shows respect and consideration to others.

Humour that singles out a person in a group situation. Good leaders know that if you are going to single anyone out as the target of a joke in a group, only ever make it yourself. Self-deprecation can helpfully make people feel at ease. Humour's role for leaders is to bring people together. Humour that singles anyone out—even with the funniest of all intentions—can alienate people.

Sarcasm or demeaning others by using humour as a weapon. Teasing and irony aren't funny. "I'm just joking" is not a valid excuse for thinly veiled jabs that insult or pain others.

To avoid making mistakes, there are four areas you should consider:

Object – who or what is the target or object of my humour, and will they be hurt by it?

Strength – what strength of feeling will this arouse, and is that appropriate in this group?

People – who is the audience, and who might be offended?

Occasion – is this really the time and place for this joke?

Taken together, these questions should guide you as to whether the comment or joke is going to be acceptable at the time. If in doubt, stop. It’s much better not to offend and hurt people, and if you think the joke might offend someone who is listening, then don’t tell it.

A ‘good’ sense of humour means tactful, pleasant fun that does not cause offence in those who are listening.

If you cause offence, that does not make the person whom you have offended ‘humourless’ or ‘no fun’. It is your problem, not theirs, and you need to make it right. If you do get it wrong, don’t hesitate to apologise. 

Socially, laughter makes relationships stronger. In addition to the importance of humour in our personal lives, we cannot underrate the power of humour at work. Humour aids in learning and memory retention, increases our ability to persuade others and diffuses conflict. Distilled to its simplest terms: Laughing feels good, and because of this, we enjoy being around—and actually seek out—people who make us laugh, not just in our personal lives, but also at work.

The workplace needs humour and laughter. Positive humour relieves boredom and stress, increases engagement and wellbeing, and stimulates participation, creativity, greater mental health and improved productivity. Sometimes work can get so serious everyone forgets to lighten up and laugh a bit. But humour should not be considered just a distraction or frivolity.  It's actually an important and necessary prescription for successful business and a happy life.

"Sometimes, you have to take a break from being the kind of leader that's always trying to teach people things. Sometimes you just have to be the leader of dancing." ― Michael Scott, The Office.

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