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Leading Through Laughter

“There is little success where there is little laughter.”
– Andrew Carnegie, philanthropist and steel magnate

In the advertising world, humour has been a proven method of engagement for ages. Quote unquote “boring” brands like Charmin, Kmart and State Farm use the power of laughter to remain fun, interesting, and top-of-mind. While the trend is on the rise, comedy in the internal communications realm is still far from prevalent. In comparison to external counterparts, we use it far less to sell messaging.

Why aren’t more businesses incorporating humour into their internal communication? It’s a funny thing. The benefits are clear. Laughter coerces us to be more engaged, creative and collaborative. It strengthens our relationships, alleviates stress and keeps us productive – employee objectives you could find at the top of any internal communication brief.

Confusion around the proper use of comedy seems to stem from expected behavior. Defined by industry, many established corporate environments view ‘having fun’ as inappropriate conduct. Despite numerous proven benefits, the average workplace just doesn’t provide a ton of laughs. Studies have also shown that while employees are highly motivated by leaders who use humour effectively, they quickly lose respect for those who use self-deprecation too regularly or attempt jokes without success. Humour can be met with a high level of subjectivity, as what we find funny will vary from employee to employee. It’s a double-edged sword, involving a level of risk that makes some leaders uncomfortable.

“If you can learn the humor of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.”

Edward Hall, anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher

So how can humour be used as a consistent motivational force?

In The Humor Code, a global search for what makes things funny, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner present the theory of “benign violation”.  They posit that we find things funny when a situation appears wrong, unsettling or threatening, while ultimately remaining safe. We enjoy teasing (roasting a celebrity, for example, is a ‘violation’ we enjoy) but when the victim appears sincerely hurt, it’s no longer benign, and no longer funny. Self-deprecation is a tool that helps leaders appear down to earth, as long as the self-criticism is delivered without malice. Even scaled back to an act as basic as tickling, this theory applies (albeit not encouraged in the workplace). The laughter stops when the attack no longer feels threatening (benign without violation) or the tickle becomes too aggressive (violation without benignity). Jokes fail when we push the limits too far, or not far enough. To avoid a flop, consider both elements – the benign and the violation – before you test out a new zinger at a meeting.

The end of The Humor Code offers some guidelines on how to skillfully ride that line as a leader:

  • Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. This includes anything from silly names for boardrooms, to lighthearted office practical jokes. Willfully lower your status on occasion and demonstrate that you can take a joke.
  • Be authentic. It’s not whether or not you’re funny – it’s what kind of funny you are.
  • Being clever is good enough. If you can’t be “ha-ha” funny, at least be “aha!” funny.
  • Jokes are funnier when they aren’t meant for everybody. Create in-groups in different departments. Manage your ‘exclusivity’ in an inclusive way.
  • Let the air out of issues that everyone is worried about. It helps employees feel more like a team, and daunting challenges feel more achievable.

Follow these rules and measure your ideas against the principle of benign violation, and you just might be tap into the benefits of an office with a sense of humour. No joke.

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