Laughter reduces stress, anxiety and pain. It’s a sign of intelligence and boosts our sense of well-being. Humor, applied appropriately, increases creativity, commitment and motivation on the job. Ultimately, it benefits business by raising key measures like productivity and innovation.
With the case for humor apparently so clear, shouldn’t we make leading with laughter and joking on the job our top priority?
Yes, but not to the point where we’re running a comedy club. While the benefits are desirable, the reality is that humor can be overdone.
There are some companies that think humor without limits is a formula for success; as one advertising agency recently claimed. They claim that constant humor with their internal communications challenges stale ideas and stimulates creative thinking.
Nothing was off-limits at this agency – not even jokes about the managing director’s sexual preferences or nationalistic comments about a non-British creative designer! The directors had created a culture of “hedonistic humor at anyone’s and everyone’s expense”.
What struck me was what they didn’t say. There was no mention of the market environment; we can all laugh when business is good and customers are buying. There was no mention of management control or employees disagreeing with strategy; any conflict seems to have been simply laughed off – that’s difficult to believe. There was mention of in-groups and out-groups; but those people in the out-group apparently did not regret their loss of power or status. That doesn’t chime with the daily reality in 99.9% of organizations I advise.
The reality is that people who overdo humor often want us to ignore their insecurities or skip over a sensitive topic. The excessive joker uses humor to hide his lack of confidence or lack of competence. He uses sarcasm and cynicism to criticize indirectly. He makes a quick joke to escape responsibility for his failed actions. This is the dark side of humor and it is distasteful.
Above all, excessive humor prevents intimacy. This blocks self-awareness – a cornerstone of personal and team development.
Good humor exposes awareness and unites in one of two ways. Either it is a spontaneous joke with no specific target beyond creating amusement. Or it is finding amusement with the strange things that happen in life and making a funny comment about them.
The best leaders instinctively know this. To them, it is common sense. They are the leaders who have seen the light and push their people to avoid the darker, destructive side of humor.