Business Transformation

A Priest, a Rabbi and a Minister Walk Into a Bar: Striking the Right Tone Through Humor

Stephen Long, Ph.D
  • My wife is probably the smartest, funniest person I know.
  • When people ask me about her, I ask them to think of the smartest girl in their high school class.
  • Then think of the funniest girl in their class. That’s Amy.

And she is just the person every office needs as people head back to the office, mostly in some hybrid fashion according to a McKinsey study. Just because we’re getting back to normal doesn’t mean we’re coming back in the same way we left.

The way we interact and collaborate with our co-workers has changed considerably. Nowadays, people are generally apprehensive exhibiting anxiety in numerous ways for various reasons. There’s a portion who are even angry.

CEO’s aren’t expected to be therapists, but they can help people transition efficiently by using humor appropriately. Dwight Eisenhower, the man who led the Allied efforts to victory in World War II, said, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” Rather than being a stress reducer, some CEO’s are stress carriers by failing to see the humor in difficult situations. An under-leveraged skill, Ike understood how human nature responds under stress and how humor benefits us and our organizational culture.

Humor is more than just a joke. It’s a way to change the collective perception by providing a new perspective on which to view things enabling people to blow off steam. Though not discussed as an leadership attribute often, humor is just the tool CEO’s need now. According to a Robert Half survey, 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement and 84% think people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Ike realized leaders who are unable to manage themselves are unable to manage others.

More Than a Good Time

Humor is a highly researched concept where medical schools study how it affects physical health, business schools study how it affects productivity and psychologists study how it affects mental health and its been found that humor increases trust. But there is something fundamental to a lack of trust. Evidence shows laughter occurs more often when people are engaged in social interactions with others than when they are alone. A study conducted at the University of Maryland1 found people are 30 times more likely to laugh when they are with others than when alone. Thus, laughter is a social behavior — it’s a form of nonverbal communication. And, a Gallup study shows we laugh significantly less on weekdays than we do on weekends. A Bell Leadership Institute study found the two most desirable traits in leaders were a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor. That’s because humor is a sign of trust between bosses and employees — people joke and laugh with people who they are comfortable with. However, 58 percent of employees trust strangers more than their boss.

Humor is a primary leadership skill because 40 percent of job turnover is due to stress where it can cause conflict — even violent conflict — on a job site. The benefit of working in a less stressful environment cuts down on healthcare costs, which are nearly 50 percent greater for employees who say they’re under high levels of stress. The cost of stress in the US is estimated to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone. The benefits of leading through humor in this new world of remote interactions is undeniable. Remotely, we share far fewer experiences and common points of reference, but when we laugh together our brains are firing with the same hormones at the same time prompting us to trust each other making those two-dimensional interactions more memorable and more meaningful.

Research shows that laughing changes our brain chemistry making us more primed for connection, more creative and resourceful, and more resilient to stress. The Humor Cocktail — oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins — reduces cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Oxytocin creates emotional bonds that helps us to trust each other. Dopamine makes us more engaged in the moment and helps us remember more content after the fact. In one study, researchers found people who watched a comedy film clip before taking a short-term memory test recalled more than twice as much information as those in a control group. Endorphins makes us feel good and temporarily relieves pain. These brain chemicals make us feel happier, less stressed, slightly euphoric and more trusting — we just have to find the funny to release them. Both on-site and virtual teams experience exponential productivity and cohesion effects from the Humor Cocktail.

Humor is Serious Business

Laughter has measurable physiological effects that strengthen our immune systems. While stress can make us sick, laughter has been shown to increase production of beta-endorphins, the proteins which help prevent illness. Laughter affects the body by increasing blood flow, strengthening the immune response and lowering blood sugar levels enabling us to relax more easily and sleep more soundly. Years ago, I helped a college quarterback in part by putting a videotape player in his hotel room the night before games so he could watch comedies. He was named his conference’s Offensive Player of the Year and All-American. Twice.

Once you’ve learned how to incorporate humor in an appropriate manner then you’ll find it makes you a better leader because humor makes people more comfortable and connected, particularly in stressful situations. It also improves morale, productivity and engagement. Humor unlocks creativity, enhances problem-solving skills and fosters better communication. Both humor and creativity are about looking at your challenges in unconventional ways to make new connections you’ve never seen before. It’s not only a relief from stress, but makes the workplace more efficient and productive. CEO’s who use humor enjoy their work where it builds deeper relationships, increases their personal likability and improves their employees’ job satisfaction. Humor also minimizes status differences within a company because it humanizes everyone regardless of where one ranks within the hierarchy. It helps everyone enjoy their work more by defusing tension throughout the organization. Therefore, people enjoy working with you as a result.

Stephen Long, Ph.D

CEO’s are more memorable to their employees because a sense of humor has been found to be the most important leadership trait in employees forming impressions of their supervisors. Leaders who use humor remain memorable for a longer time period because people are more likely to remember previous events when they were smiling, laughing and enjoying themselves. As a result, leaders with a sense of humor are 27 percent more motivating and admired. In addition, their employees are 15 percent more engaged and their people are more than twice as likely to solve creative challenges. One study showed you can get a better deal by adding a simple, easy-going line to the end of a sales pitch it. I’ve used, “This is my final offer. And I’ll throw in my kids’ cat.” Prospects are disarmed from acting defensively because an awkward situation has been defused. Yes, you heard that right. You can pocket up to an 18 percent higher price point by telling one of your bad dad jokes.

The psychological impact of humor may be the most powerful. While laughter decreases stress and eases tension individually, connection, well-being and intellectual safety are enhanced collectively. Laughter reduces stress, creates new perspectives, elevates moods and improves cooperation and empathy among people. Humor helps build trust and morale and as a result, CEO’s tend to be more approachable.

CEO’s who use humor are perceived to be more competent by modeling high emotional intelligence through self-confidence. When CEO’s use humor effectively, they’re seen as not only likable but also intelligent and trustworthy. By using humor, CEO’s show they are able to manage a challenging situation resulting in greater happiness. These leaders reassure to their workforce that they have the confidence, control and time to manage stressful situations. Think about it — would you think a company is doing well if a CEO is too busy to smile once a day? Humor signals to all stakeholders — employees, clients, investors, suppliers — that while everything may not be fine, everything is under control.

People assume elite producers perform well under pressure. They don’t — because nobody does. They take the pressure off so they can trust their talent. Humor is an empowerment tool applied by the very best, but everyone can use it to their benefit. Those who believe they work better under extreme stress are prime candidates for burnout. They might pull a rabbit out of their hat once in a while, but consistent high performance is outside of their reach.

CEO’s who use humor learn more about their organization’s norms and values. What’s funny changes over time based on your people, their beliefs, their experiences and their environment. Humor is a mirror reflecting group’s norms, values, freedom of expression and what your people currently deem acceptable. By doing so, CEO’s are better able to connect with their workforce.

WWJD — What Would Jerry Do?

Humor is an acquired trait and because we all have a sense of humor we can understand others’ sense of humor. We don’t have to be Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock or Amy Schumer, but we can apply a few guidelines to infuse humor at work. Above all, be yourself.

We all have our own humor style. Some appropriate. Some not so much. Here’s what we know how to use humor:

  • Being able to take a joke encourages a good-natured, friendly atmosphere.
  • The funniest moments are authentic and natural.
  • Positive, uplifting humor is far more powerful than negative, mean-spirited humor. It’s simply more effective to laugh with people than laugh at them.
  • Don’t cross the line.  A harassment-free workplace includes not making people uncomfortable with offensive jokes or comments about women, minorities or members of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Being professional doesn’t mean humor has to be G-rated, but tasteful never goes out of style.
  • Take a minute to read the room because humor is always context dependent.

There are different kinds of humor so find your own style. Positive humor includes clever, witty, and dry whereas negative humor relies on sarcasm and teasing. And don’t underestimate the power of silliness. CEO’s look for opportunities to use humor to their advantage. Poking fun at things that are universal to all of us are usually safe topics. Cable companies and internet providers or something that everyone worries about works well — Russia is an easy target. Inside jokes work because they’re about shared experiences that everyone can relate to. Clever responses to what one is saying can work as long as it’s not intended as criticism.

Positive humor is less about what’s funny and more about what’s true. Humor that integrates diverse topics enhances one’s relationships with others in a benevolent, enhancing manner. Spontaneous joke telling, witty banter and laughing with others enable CEO’s to charm and amuse, ease tension and improve relationships. Positive humor is the ability to laugh at yourself, your circumstances and the oddities of life in a constructive, non-offensive manner. Leaders use it to enhance themselves in a friendly, warm-hearted fashion.

Humor failures are nuanced between the giver and the taker, and there are two kinds. The first is benign where a joke just doesn’t get a laugh. The second is when humor crosses a line we’re not aware of. We could brush it off as the other person’s problem, but it’s an opportunity to admit our mistakes by acknowledging our blind spots. You can actually use humor failures to humanize yourself — only if you acknowledge the blind spot. The consequences of using inappropriate humor can be significant. I witnessed a career meltdown during a weekly faculty meeting at the US Air Force Academy. An experienced field grade officer made a degrading comment about women during a presentation. It was low hanging fruit for the male junior officers (20 somethings) in attendance, but he lost the approval of the civilian faculty and most importantly the confidence of his senior officers. While this incident was another nail in his coffin, he failed to be promoted to senior officer rank primarily because of his defensiveness and reluctance to change. Negative humor includes aggressive humor that is detrimental towards others. This type of humor is characterized by sarcasm, put-downs, teasing, criticism and ridicule directed at the expense of others. At best, teasing can be a sign of affection, and at worst it’s bullying used as a means to gain social dominance over someone or a group of people, but the true intent can easily be misunderstood. If you have to explain that you’re just joking then you’ve lost the audience, which is the exact opposite effect of what you’re trying to create. If you’re not sure if people are laughing to be polite, watch their eyes. People who are genuinely amused smile at the mouth, but also crinkle around the eyes. Most of us can fake a smile, but not that joyous sparkle in our eyes.

Self-deprecation uses negative humor towards one’s self in order to gain approval from others. This humor style is understated, but people who use it are often so focused on lifting others up that they rely too heavily on it. Self-deprecation can be a powerful tool at the higher levels of an organization, but at lower levels it can be a career-derailer. To use humor authentically, you need to understand not just your own humor style but that of your people.

A rule of thumb is to never punch down because making fun of someone with lower status is considered very bad form. This is particularly important for leaders because the context for humor changes as we rise in the organization. C-Level leaders who may not have relied on self-deprecation early in their careers, can now be a superpower in their current position. However, self-deprecation is effective only if you’re delivering results for the organization. If not, self-deprecation is a point of agreement among the rank & file by verifying what everyone assumes about you.

It’s easier to make fun of yourself than risk making fun of others. Effective CEO’s develop self-deprecating humor as part of their leadership skills to humanize themselves. We are significantly more attracted to competent people who appear to have a minor, relatable flaw. Employees feel more connected to a leader who’s able to expose their mistakes and vulnerabilities in the workplace. The Pratfall Effect occurs when highly competent people become more likable after committing a mistake while average people become less likable by making the same mistake. Laughing when you make a mistake puts everyone else at ease — as long as they see you as competent. Personally, I haven’t made a mistake since 1977 and that’s only because I thought I had made a mistake. The truth is I make more mistakes before 9AM than most people make all day. A study found leaders using self‐deprecating humor were rated higher on individualized consideration — a factor of transformational leadership — than those that used negative humor.2

Leave ‘em Laughing

Humor and work might appear to be inconsistent, but CEO’s can use humor to strengthen relationships throughout their organizations. Some leaders assume laughter is dangerous because they assume it can undermine one’s authority. That might be a remote concern, but applied appropriately humor helps employees perceive CEO’s as more approachable and supportive. Humor has less to do with cracking jokes and more to do with being human. Adjusting your leadership style to be more empathic and understanding of others’ needs allows your sense of humor to flow. Telling stories about yourself allows people to relate to you because there are more similarities than differences.

The more stressful the work environment, the greater need there is for humor. Allow laughter in the workplace by empowering the court jesters and class clowns to add a bit of levity to your workplace. They can be your most potent asset as we return to the office.

Provine, R. R., & Fischer, K. R. (1989). Laughing, smiling, and talking: Relation to sleeping and social context in humans. Ethology, 83(4), 295-305.
Hoption, Colette, Barling, Julian and Turner, Nick. (2013) “It’s not you, it’s me”: Transformational Leadership and Self‐Deprecating Humor. Leadership & Organization Development Journal.  34(1), 4-19
Written by Stephen Long, Ph.D.

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Stephen Long, Ph.D
Stephen Long, Ph.D is the founder and president of Motere Consulting, a performance enhancement firm providing management assessment and management development services through his statistically-based predictive model of Human Performance & Leadership he built while serving as the Head of Performance Psychology in the Human Performance Lab at the US Air Force Academy. His clients average 115% improvement in financial performance with a zero failure rate through the application of his model.

Stephen Long, Ph.D is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.