How frequently do you think your employees laugh at work? In contrast, how often do you estimate that they feel bored or uninspired? Skilled leaders, those we call the “Stand-Up Strategists”, understand the utility of humor to address four important organizational outcomes, or the 4Cs: Community, Composure, Change, and Creativity. And to address these four outcomes they typically use four broad styles of humor.
The 4S – Styles of Humor
The four styles we identified are based on our understanding of humor-driven dynamics in organizations, and build upon the broader world of humor research:
- Sensory humor involves a leader projecting an energetic, positive, playful vibe, and having a generally humorous outlook.
- Social humor typically involves jokes or stories shared as a tool to reduce interpersonal tension, increase sociability and promote openness.
- Self-deprecating humor is the ability of a leader to laugh at him/herself to reduce power-distance, and thereby facilitate more positive and intimate relationships.
- Strong humor most often entails sarcasm or cynicism. It is the comic style most associated with generating negative emotions, and therefore the one with the most limited application in organizations.
The 4Cs – Organizational Outcomes
There are four organizational outcomes where humor can be leveraged as a particularly effective managerial tool:
In situations in which collaboration is an important driver of organizational success, lacking a sense of community can be a formidable barrier to delivering results. It is well understood by psychologists and social scientists that people who laugh together generally have stronger feelings of empathy and bonding.
The sense of fun and social humor can be used as especially effective humoristic styles to build group cohesiveness, with a leader as the role model of projecting a relaxed and humorous attitude, sharing occasional jokes, anecdotes and stories that inject a playful aspect to day to day interactions.
In situations where a leader needs to increase sociability across organizational hierarchies, self-deprecating humor can also be used. In years gone by, strong ‘community’ humor might have involved humiliation, ridicule, sexist or even racist overtones but these kinds of jokes, anecdotes and stories have no place in today’s world.
Beyond being potentially damaging to one’s own reputation, inappropriate humor can also contribute to a reduced morale, absenteeism, the elevation of dysfunctional internal competition, and company-level reputational damage.
Studies on humor, stress and coping strategies have shown that individuals with a high sense of humor tend to experience less stress than individuals with a low sense of humor, even in situations where both face similar challenges. In group situations, humor can be utilized to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines, targets or crises.
Social humor is best leveraged in these situations, not to make deadlines or challenges disappear, but to improve morale, to help individuals avoid feelings of isolation, and to increase the solidarity of purpose needed to overcome adversity. Due to its tendency to trigger negative emotions, strong humor should be used sparingly, and in most instances only ever directed at external targets where there is an urgent need to overcome complacency or strong internal inertia.
It is important for all leaders to communicate with employees about ongoing organizational change, especially with regards to vision and strategic priorities. Humor in day-to-day interactions and broader organizational communication can create an atmosphere which improves listening and understanding, boosts message retention, and enables positive emotions.
These outcomes are even more vital during times of continuous change – two of the most common reasons that employees resist change are lack of sufficient information and a fear of the unknown. In the words of writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The fourth organizational condition addressed by humor is perhaps the most important: creativity. Humor, laughter, and fun releases physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component of creativity, ideation, and problem-solving. Discoveries in this area also explain why many leaders are not just leveraging humor, but are also investing in creating playful and fun work environments.
Jumping to conclusions…
Time and time again in our interactions with leaders in some of the world’s most successful and innovative companies we have been struck by a recurring experience – not only are these leaders intelligent, talented and forward-thinking, many of them are also very funny. And it is not just that these senior executives are able to deliver a flawless punchline at a cocktail reception or town hall event – they are able to leverage humor as a strategic tool.
May the farce be with you!
About the authors
This post is by Jamie Anderson and Gabor George Burt.
Jamie Anderson is Professor of Strategic Management at Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at INSEAD. He has been named a “management guru” in the Financial Times, and included on Business Strategy Review’s list of the world’s “top 25 management thinkers”. www.jamieandersononline.com Twitter: @JamieAndersonBE
Gabor George Burt is a leading business transformationist and creator of the Slingshot Platform, enabling organizations to overstep perceived limitations, re-imagine market boundaries, and achieve sustained relevance. www.gaborgeorgeburt.com