“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership.”
~ Dwight D. Eisenhower
The secret for effective humor in leadership is to set the tone for humor, while at the same time, set high expectations. Effective leaders understand that there are three primary benefits for using humor with their staff: Stress management, communication, and motivation.
“Terminal professionalism” seems to be a sign of the times. But taking oneself too seriously can have some unpleasant side effects. According to a recent Gallup Poll approximately 1 million employees in the US miss work daily due to stress related conditions. Stressed out workers make costly mistakes; sometimes even deadly ones.
Humor is recognized as a healthy coping mechanism (as compared to unhealthy means, such as smoking, drinking, drugs, excessive work, etc). It is by no means the be-all-end-all. Today people need a variety of coping mechanisms to survive and thrive. Melodie Chenevert, author of S.T.A.T. explains, “Some days you need tools, some days you need weapons, but you need your sense of humor every day!”
Whether it’s in a classroom setting, a budget meeting, or one-on-one, humor can give leaders a serious advantage. Want to convey information? A humorous quote, a short joke, or even a cartoon—if you can get someone laughing, you can get them listening. Do you need to deal with an unpleasant situation? Humor can relieve tension and provide a different perspective. Does your situation call for negotiation? Humor builds a sense of trust. Studies have shown that people who use humor are more likely to get what they’re negotiating for. The more relevant the humor, the more effective your communication will be.
The primary reason a person becomes less productive or even leaves his position isn’t usually money. It’s because he’s unhappy. Making the work environment more pleasant and fun isn’t the only answer—but it helps; particularly when you’re dealing with Gen X and Gen Y, who often value pleasure over monetary compensation.
I once spoke for an upper management group in Chicago about humor in their company. They were so excited about the concept that they had me return 6 weeks later to address everyone from middle management down to maintenance and housekeeping. Imagine my surprise when I saw the following feedback on numerous evaluations: “This is great! I just wish my boss could have heard it.”
What’s wrong with this picture? While upper management claimed to approve of the use of humor, the message being conveyed was, “Beatings will continue until morale improves!” Companies with this mindset generally suffer high rates of turnover which can cost tens of thousands of dollars for each lost employee.
Lead with laughter
Set the tone: If you’re in a position of leadership, give others permission to have fun. Walk the talk. Be willing to overcome the fear of foolishness. Creating positive change may involve stepping outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to look a little silly: a goofy tie, button, socks, etc. When employees demonstrate the use of humor, give positive feedback or guidance, if necessary, but don’t punish them.
Set the environment: Humorous posters, memos, and signs can lighten the surroundings. Bulletin boards displaying cartoons, jokes, and funny notes don’t take a big investment but can provide an abundance of entertainment. Create a positive working atmosphere at the desks with toys such as Legos, Nerf guns, Silly Putty, Koosh balls and hula-hoops. Add some comic activities or theme days to the calendar. Encourage everyone to be involved. A little competition between units or departments may increase interest.
Set the pace: Don’t delay taking action. Be proactive and practice implementing humor on a regular basis. The more you use humor, the easier it becomes, the more benefits you’ll reap, and the more you’ll enjoy work and life.