When I signed on the dotted line to acquire my first office space, I had no idea about the growing list of responsibilities I’d be facing nearly twenty-five years later. Being an owner, entrepreneur, and C-suite leader today is a tall order.
The pressure to do more with less and still meet targets while being sensitive to your team’s attempts to recover physically, mentally, and psychologically from the pandemic can be overwhelming at times. Add yet another layer of anxiety caused by marketplace considerations, such as the economy, employee churn, artificial intelligence, and the rising demand for mental health support, factors influencing employee performance appear to be at an all-time high.
Many of these factors make it imperative to double down on classic competencies like honesty, supportiveness, and dependability. I would agree, with one condition, which is to add a quality that’s frequently used among great leaders but often forgotten when asked what works: humor!
Adversity is a great opportunity to master your emotions and make humor your ally. Let me clarify that I’m not talking about rolling out jokes and punchlines; while those would be welcome on occasion, I define humor broadly to include positivity and optimism.
I’ve discovered that humor and positivity are multipliers for many of the duties with which we’re tasked as leaders, and they can be incredibly helpful in establishing your competitive advantage and leading a fulfilling career.
Here are five ways that humor and positivity elevate your outcomes:
- Building relationships – Humor can do the heavy lifting in relationships. Every leader knows that relationship building is the cornerstone of connecting with your team. Leaders account for a staggering 70 percent of variance in employee engagement. Showing your humor can break the ice and make vulnerability easier. We’re often in a position where we have to blend earning respect with being human as leaders. Self-deprecating humor is a great vehicle for vulnerability because it shows self-awareness. I’ve noticed this with my staff and especially my patients. Like any first-time meeting, there might be anxiety—especially when I draw blood with a new patient. I often joke with a smile, “Now that wasn’t bad for my first time.” This sets the tone for our doctor-patient rapport and puts the patient at ease. My staff appreciates it too and often will remind me if I forget to make the jokes they know so well!
- Modeling leadership – No two personalities are alike, and the same logic applies to your leadership style. The most important aspect of leadership is modeling what you want others to emulate but encouraging them to find their own creative and individual approach. Showing your team the behaviors you’re looking for versus telling them sends a stronger message about the positivity and the culture you value. Sometimes just the idea of leadership causes people to think of closed doors and formal conversations. Showing your sense of humor models a more human approach and encourages others to do the same. In the above example with my patients, my staff sees that I’m keen on establishing a warm yet professional connection, which gives them permission to do the same and in their own way.
- Pressure-testing your team – Leaders can expect to spend 50 percent more on employee health care if they have high-pressure cultures. It’s impossible to create a workplace free of demands, but humor can be that critical pressure-release valve when tensions are high or people are feeling the strain of meeting deadlines or goals. Constraints often trigger our senses to take something too seriously.
And while I’m an advocate of working expertly and efficiently, pressure tends to backfire if we overexaggerate the importance of the circumstances. Humor can help us befriend the moment and think of goals or timelines as a challenge or an opportunity—or, dare I say it, as fun. Working in a busy practice can cause our team to feel the pressure if we’re behind schedule.
Rather than pass that negative energy onto each other or with our patients, we focus on what we can control with upbeat communication and humor. For instance, if appointments are running long and we know patients will be waiting, rather than put them in an examination room by themselves (low control), we keep them in the reception area where my staff can engage them in friendly conversation (high control). This happens on occasion because I love to chat with my patients!
- Improving learning outcomes – Laughter pushes out the anxiety around change or learning something new and can amplify your training results. Take one of my assistants, for example. She’s extremely bright and does her job fabulously, but when she started, she had a difficult time pronouncing some of the products we recommended to patients. She knew this and started to joke about it. We made a game of charades to help her remember the phonetics of each word and had fun with it. Today it’s an inside joke that we can still laugh about, and it’s brought us closer. Humor helped us downsize her difficulty with pronunciation, and she was able to enjoy the process of getting up to speed, which helped in the long run.
- Boosting confidence and motivation – Lift your team’s confidence and motivation with positivity in the form of appreciation, for example. Seventy-nine percent of employees quit due to lack of appreciation, so recognition is a ripe opportunity for leaders. Celebrate good days or even small wins with everyone rather than keep them to yourself. Make small wins memorable so that the “afterglow” carries on in your efforts going forward. Whenever a patient shares that they’ve turned a corner thanks to our advice or input, I make sure to share that with everyone on the team. I want them to experience the same rush I do when a patient improves. Don’t keep compliments to yourself! Siphon every bit of energy you can from positive feedback to fuel everyone around you. If your team is like mine, they beam when they hear feedback.
Enjoyment from moments like these releases dopamine in your system, which leads to emotions that counteract feelings of uncertainty or discomfort. Rather than try to overhaul your whole approach at work, start by making one small change at time, like turning something perfunctory into a reason to celebrate.
If you ask about the positive traits people appreciate about their boss, chances are you’ll hear descriptions like trust, respect, credibility, and camaraderie. I would challenge you to multiply the effects of all these qualities using humor and positivity.
While everyone’s definition of fun is different, you can accomplish a sense of levity by testing what works, just like you would a business strategy or approach. Bottom line, enjoyment is an essential ingredient to creating an enduring workplace culture. Give people a reason to love their job. When work is fun, more gets done. Your optimism will breathe life into your teamwork and give you a reason to celebrate greater success together.
Written by Dr. Cindy Howard.
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