Time To Get Serious About Humour

I’ve been banging on about the importance of humour at work for years now. How laughter helps us bond as a team. How humour can help us get into the right mindset for creative thinking. Why the best ideas come as jokes and how we can make our thinking as funny as possible. But understanding the power and practical uses of humour for leaders has never been as important as it is right now; while our working worlds have been thrown upside down during the Covid-19 pandemic. So it’s no surprise that it’s now the number one thing I’m asked to talk to leaders and teams about in Zoom webinars and workshops.

Using humour at work is not as hard as you might think. And it’s not about being a comedian either. I’m definitely not advocating we all strive to be the office clown. It’s about being human, empathising with your colleagues, understanding what makes us all laugh, and realising when to make it work for you. We can all do it. And we can all get better at it.

Here are five key points on the role of humour that all leaders should be aware of right now:-

1. The Happy Brain Works Better

Brain scientists know the power of humour. More and more studies are showing that laughter has very real, very positive effects on the brain. It increases gammar oscillations (obviously!) which helps us make fresh connections in our thinking. It releases dopamine, which helps our brains process emotional responses, and serotonin which puts us in a positive mood. Comedy is basically cerebral crack cocaine. And MRI scans of the brain have shown that we’re far more likely to have those Aha! moments when we’re in a happy mood.

2. Vital Signs

The power of seeing your senior leaders use humour comes not just from the effect of laughter, but from the signal that it’s OK to have fun and bring your sense of humour to work. When you want your teams to be more creative, to think differently, to have permission to challenge ‘business as usual’ they need to know it’s OK, at that moment, to have a laugh.

3. Keeping The Tribe Together

It’s commonly believed that laughter pre-dates human speech. Probably to indicate trust and psychological safety amongst the tribe. When danger past the clan in their cave they would laugh together, out of relief, signalling they were safe together. And laughter is a group activity. It’s contagious. It’s not the joke that makes us laugh, it’s the sharing the joke with others that triggers the laughter. So the team that laughs together, feels safe together and will feel more secure in exploring new territory together.

4. Upping Your Creativity

I’ve run hundreds of idea sessions around the world and I’ve seen time and again that the initial spark of a great idea makes us laugh. So I’m with advertising legend David Ogilvy who said “The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible.” And Albert Einstein who said “If at first the idea doesn’t seem absurd then there’s no hope for it.” Ideas and jokes share the same DNA. They’re both made from a truth that’s been twisted. An insight expressed in a fresh, new, surprising way. Both jokes and ideas can shock us in their audacity. They can astonish us in their insightfulness. They both make us laugh. That’s why it’s very hard to have brilliant new ideas without embracing the role of humour in the room.

5. How To Do It

My Top Do’s and Don’ts for using humour as a leader are:-

  • Don’t over think it. Its about showing you are human.
  • Don’t be sarcastic or take the mickey by picking on someone. Never laugh down! Mean comedy is not a good look for a leader.
  • Do know your audience and the context. Be mindful of how everyone’s feeling, what’s going on at that moment…
  • Do test your funnies first. Try it out on a few friendly people before you address the nation.

Top Tip: We laugh at the truth, and we laugh when we’re surprised. So start by identifying a surprising truth. What’s a new truth that unites your team? Have some fun with that.

Crucially humour isn’t the sole preserve of the comedy professional. You don’t have to be a comedian to make people laugh. You don’t have to be a comedy writer to understand how to use humour to make people think. It’s a technique as much as a talent. We can all learn how to use humour to make a positive difference. And when the world seems like a scary place, and your teams are feeling unsettled, when thinking differently and dreaming up new ways of doing things has never been more necessary, it’s time to get serious about being funny.

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