Laughing may seem unprofessional, but do not be fooled. Humour is a serious business for leaders. Research shows it offers a variety of cognitive, emotional, social and even physical benefits that can profoundly influence organizational culture and team dynamics.
The Benefits of Humor for Leaders
Think of the most admired and influential leaders you know, whether historical figures or people you have worked with. Chances are many of them shared a common trait - a lively sense of humour. This is no coincidence. Decades of research reveal why humour matters for those in charge and how it benefits leadership:
Reduces Stress and Tension
Leadership comes with heavy responsibilities and difficult decisions that can lead to high anxiety and burnout. Laughter releases endorphins that counteract stress hormones and relax the mind and body (Mesmer-Magnus et al., 2012). A short, humorous break can help leaders reset and recharge when pressure mounts. Amusing jokes or antics that get teams laughing together also relieve tension and puts people in a more positive mindset to tackle challenges.
Sparks Creativity and Innovation
Laughing activates regions of the brain associated with cognitive flexibility and creative problem-solving (Stack & Hughes, 2021). Exposure to humour gets our mental juices flowing, helping people make connections between disparate ideas and think more imaginatively. Leaders who interject appropriate comedy keep their teams engaged, inspired, and thinking outside the box. Amusing diversions stimulate bursts of innovative thinking.
Builds Relationships and Trust
Sharing laughter forms strong social bonds and makes people feel more connected and willing to open up (Cooper, 2008). When leaders show their human side through tasteful humour, it increases their likeability and brings them closer to team members. The sense of mutual understanding makes subordinates feel more comfortable approaching leaders for mentoring or voicing concerns. Humour signals that leaders are transparent and approachable.
Sprinkling relevant comedy into messaging helps leaders hold the audience's attention, making key points more memorable and impactful (Meyer, 2000). Making people laugh lowers defences so they fully receive the overall conveyed ideas. Humour also engages groups who might otherwise tune out dry, strictly business communications from their superiors.
Boosts Morale and Motivation
Exposure to humour elevates mood, hope, and enthusiasm by releasing pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters like dopamine (Mesmer-Magnus et al., 2012). When spirits are up, teams feel more driven, satisfied, and engaged. Leaders who regularly inject appropriate levity create an upbeat, enjoyable culture where people are excited to collaborate and bring their best efforts.
Change often spurs apprehension or even resistance within organizations. Humour can help defuse negativity by getting people laughing instead of fixating on the unknown (Vetter & Gockel, 2016). Amusing metaphors and stories make new concepts more understandable and approachable. Leaders can unite teams going through transitions by using humour to acknowledge tensions light-heartedly. Shared laughter relieves nerves.
Research shows humour offers cognitive, emotional, social and physiological benefits that positively impact workplaces. However, as with any powerful tool, leaders must wield comedy thoughtfully and strategically. Inappropriate or excessive humour can undermine leadership effectiveness and erode workplace morale and trust. Mastering mirth requires care, moderation and close attention to context.
Using Humor Skillfully and Appropriately
Humour is a risky business for managers if not handled with care. Before cracking jokes, leaders should consider:
Know Your Audience
Different groups find different content humorous based on backgrounds, personalities, demographics, and team dynamics. Pay close attention to what jokes and comedic references get the best reception from direct reports. Avoid any attempts at humour that could marginalize or alienate specific employees.
Punch Up, Not Down
Self-deprecating humour is often the safest bet for leaders. Avoid jokes or remarks that could be perceived as belittling or mocking any groups or individuals. The goal is to unite teams and build morale, not demean or alienate. Leaders should set the example of promoting inclusion and psychological safety at all times.
Keep it Relevant
For maximum impact, ensure humorous asides tie back to the work in some way rather than just random jokes or antics. Comedy works best when it reinforces overarching messaging and direction. Inside jokes built on shared work experiences can be especially beneficial for morale and camaraderie.
Watch for Reactions
Pay close attention to how employees react to humorous attempts verbally and nonverbally. Smiles and laughs are good signs, while cringes, eye rolls or frowns suggest humour may be flopping or offensive. Leaders should aim to get audiences chuckling along - if people seem uncomfortable, quickly move on.
Time it Thoughtfully
Even the most hilarious leaders misfire on occasion. Before using humour, consider the situation, the mindsets involved, and the potential receptivity of the target audience. High-anxiety scenarios when focus is needed might not be ideal moments for comedy. Follow laughter with a pivot back to serious collaboration.
Do not Force It
Humour should flow from a natural personality, not feel artificially injected just for laughs. Leaders trying too hard to be funny often bomb and look foolish. Accept that not every quip lands successfully - laugh it off and move forward confidently.
If tensions arise from attempts at humour, hold open discussions to get everyone back on the same page. Outline expectations around professionalism and clarify that respect is mandatory, even in jest. Some topics might be off limits – it is better to learn through minor missteps than significant disasters.
With care, leaders can harness the power of humour for more robust connections, communications, morale and productivity. However, they must heed caution, boundaries and feedback. Mastery requires reading the room artfully to time comedy for maximum benefit, not damage.
Leading the Humor in Your Workplace
My advice for managers aiming to wield more humour is to start small. Trying too hard too fast can backfire. Build skills gradually by:
Pay attention to what gets natural laughs from your team and what bombs awkwardly. Lean into approaches that consistently break the tension and make people smile. Laugh with employees - not at them.
Work humour references subtly into conversations and presentations. See what gets a good reception before attempting riskier, overt jokes. It takes time to develop comedic intuition. Do not rush the process.
Every workplace has its subcultures and sensitivities. Feel the lines between uniting people through laughter versus offending and dividing them. Adapt humour efforts based on what resonates best with your team.
Ask trusted advisors for input on attempts at lightening the mood. Blind spots likely exist, so constructive criticism helps leaders appropriately refine their humorous leadership style.
Expanding Your Repertoire
Consume more comedy through shows, books, and workshops to keep honing your skills. However, be sure the laughs you are learning to elicit align with organizational values and culture.
With practice, leaders can learn to weave humour naturally into interactions in ways that humanize them, foster creativity and build an engaged, inspired workforce. However, humour must be handled with care and wisdom like any powerful tool. The most effective leaders know how to balance motivating mirth with a professional focus on the mission. Laughter in leadership is no joke - when wielded strategically, humour offers cognitive, emotional, social and professional benefits too impactful to ignore.
Cooper, C. D. (2008). Elucidating the bonds of workplace humour: A relational process model. Human Relations, 61(8), 1087–1115. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726708094861
Mesmer-Magnus, J., Glew, D. J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2012). A meta-analysis of positive humour in the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 27(2), 155-190. https://doi.org/10.1108/02683941211199554
Meyer, J. C. (2000). Humor as a double-edged sword: Four functions of humour in communication. Communication Theory, 10(3), 310–331. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.2000.tb00194.x
Stack, K., & Hughes, L. W. (2021). The neuroscience of humour at work: A review and recommendations. Human Resource Management Review. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2021.100839
Vetter, L., & Gockel, C. (2016). Cannot buy me laughter–Humour in organisational change. Gruppe Interaktion Organisation Zeitschrift für Angewandte Organisationspsychologie (GIO), 47(4), 313-320. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11612-016-0341-7