Improving your leadership through humour

Today, interpersonal skills are critical to our personal and professional success. In the workplace, we are increasingly encouraged to improve our capacity to handle relationships judiciously and empathetically.

Organisational humour can create positive energy within a company and help improve leadership skills, but used inappropriately it can destroy a manager’s credibility and offend people.

Dr Vanessa Marcié is CEO & founder of Leading With Humour, an innovative international change management consultancy that aims to improve people’s performance, workplace culture, relationships and communication through enhanced understanding and use of humour.

She is co-author, along with Sucheta Nadkarni, Director of the Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School, of research about the impact of humour as a powerful leadership tool. This research demonstrates the positive consequences of using humour in the way leaders communicate, lead teams, and deliver high-performance results.

In this article, Marcié, who is an Executive MBA graduate of Cambridge Judge Business School, shares her thoughts about how people can effectively use humour in the workplace:

“Although humour is an underrated and underutilised asset, it can have a tremendous impact in transforming organisational culture and how employees can work better together. I want it to be seen as a critical component of leadership.

A hundred senior executives were interviewed for our study, from industries as diverse as finance, healthcare and technology. One key finding highlights differences in the use and receipt of humour based on gender: while male and female leaders agree that humour has a beneficial effect on their leadership, women often hold back using humour even when it may be effective. This represents a significant lost opportunity in gender equality in the workplace, as humour could be a critical strategy for female leaders to enhance their performance and thrive in a masculine world.

We tend to think our sense of humour is innate, that we are born with it not. I believe everybody has a sense of humour but, as with our leadership skills, some people are more equipped than others. However, it doesn’t mean we can’t improve our ability to use humour nor that we can’t learn to use it purposefully to achieve a specific outcome.

Both male and female leaders would benefit from understanding the type of humour that works best for them, and, more important, how to use humour strategically to their advantage.

How? First people need to understand four different types of humour:

  • Self-defeating: Putting yourself down in an aggressive or ‘poor me’ fashion.
  • Aggressive: Put-downs or insults targeted toward individuals.
  • Self-enhancing: Making yourself the target in a good-natured way.
  • Affiliative: Telling jokes about things that everyone might find funny.

People can adapt these types of humour according to the status of the audience – whether someone is addressing their superior, subordinate or peer; the gender of the listener or listeners; and whether the situation is formal or informal. If used correctly, humour can generate benefits in the following areas: group cohesion; improved communication; stress reduction; creativity; positive change in company culture; power; and reduction of social distance.

In an organisation, humour can also be applied by leaders in various situations and across many departments:

  • International: In a business context, one can often be confronted with the challenges of an international audience and multiculturality. It is crucial to keep in mind that your sense of humour might not translate very well, and what makes people laugh in the UK might be offending or misunderstood in other countries. The ideal would be to learn about local customs before trying your best joke, or alternatively use a type of humour consisting of anecdotes about general topics that easily span geography and culture.
  • In a crisis situation: We can’t laugh about everything with everyone. In the context of a severe crisis, using humour could demonstrate insensitivity that would only worsen the situation. However, responding to a rumour with humour could illustrate a sense of control and creativity.
  • In change management: Humour has the power to overcome resistance to change and promote a positive outlook. Knowing how to use humour in times of stress and change demonstrates an absolute mastery of the situation that inspires confidence.
  • Human resources: Knowing the type of humour of a candidate can help refine recruitment and form better-meshed teams. By allowing the use of humour within teams or within a company, the CEO and other managers can participate in the transformation of a company’s DNA.
  • Sales: Humour helps break the ice and build deeper, more positive and longer-lasting relationships with prospective customers. Laughing helps anchor a positive emotion that can make a huge difference in negotiations.
  • Marketing: Depending on the industry, thinking outside the box and having fun with your marketing can contribute to creating a brand the public will remember positively and whose message will be more easily retained.

Five keys to unleashing leadership effectiveness:

  • Know your audience: understanding your audience allow you to better tailor your sense of humour and avoid well-intentioned jokes that turn into humour disasters.
  • Be mindful of laughing at others: humour should be kind and intelligent to bring people together and create positive energy.
  • Laugh at yourself: As a leader, it is essential to not take yourself too seriously, as humour helps subordinates know that you’re a real person and realise your flaws.
  • Appear in control: When under pressure, humour is the first thing that can disappear. So if you can still use it while under pressure, it conveys the message that you are in command of the situation.
  • Be ready: If you have a ready comeback in your pocket, it’s an excellent way to point out something inappropriate.

I believe that each laugh of each person triggers a positive ripple effect on the world and the capacity to transform organisations, people and relationships. So dare to be funny, but use humour with kindness and in mindfulness.”

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