With Martin G. Moore

Episode #300

Humor is ESSENTIAL: How to keep it light!

Looking back on 300 episodes of No Bullsh!t Leadership, I’m incredibly proud of the body of knowledge that Em and I have created to help leaders all over the world to become better.

I’m also humbled that each of you tune in, week after week, putting in the hard yards to improve your leadership capability and confidence…using the tools and strategies to improve the way you lead.

The impact you’re having on the world by leveraging our content is incalculable.

I thought pretty carefully about what topic I would choose to mark this milestone, and decided it was time to revisit an important piece of the leadership puzzle, which is often overlooked.

About 3 years ago, I released Ep.145: Humor is Underrated. In today’s episode, I upgrade that assessment… I think that, these days, humor has become essential.

Even in the last 3 years, our collective senses of humor seem to have been further stifled, and we’re in imminent danger of completely losing the value of humor in the workplace.

Today, I give you five compelling reasons why you need to fight to keep the arrow of humor in your own leadership quiver! The culture and performance of your team depend on it more than you could imagine!

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Episode #300 Humor is ESSENTIAL: How to keep it light!

What a milestone! Our 300th episode of No Bullsh!t Leadership. Sort of cool, considering that when we set out, I figured I had about two dozen topics I could cover.

As I look back now, I’m incredibly proud of the body of knowledge that Em and I have created to help leaders all over the world to become better. And without Em, none of this would exist. She convinced me to give up my CEO role to set out on this adventure and I’ll be eternally grateful to her for persuading me that I had something of value to contribute.

But I’m also incredibly humbled that each of you tune in, week after week, putting in the hard yards to improve your leadership capability and confidence – using the tools and strategies to improve the way you lead.

The impact that you’re having on the world by leveraging our content is incalculable.

I thought pretty carefully about what topic I would choose to mark this milestone, and I decided it was time to revisit an important element of the leadership puzzle, which is often overlooked.

About three years ago, I released Ep.145: Humor is Underrated. In today’s Newsletter, I upgrade my assessment: I think that these days, humor has become essential.

Even in the last three years, our collective senses of humor seem to have been further stifled, and we’re in imminent danger of completely losing the value of humor in the workplace.

I’ll start by recapping the foundational concepts of humor at work. I’ll take a quick look at how I think the landscape has changed, and I’ll finish with five compelling reasons why you need to fight to keep the arrow of humor in your own leadership quiver.


I’ve always been a big fan of using humor in the workplace – but the way I use it has changed dramatically over the last 35 years. As you might imagine, the standard for what’s acceptable has experienced a seismic shift, and I’d like to think that I’ve shifted with it.

I remember back in the old days telling jokes at a Friday afternoon drink session in the offices of a boutique consulting firm that I worked for in the late eighties. A lot of those jokes would now be considered offensive. I guess some would’ve even been considered offensive back then, but I’m pretty sure my colleagues weren’t offended, to tell you the truth.

I might still tell the odd one of those today, but only to my inner circle. Why? Because they’re incredibly funny and they’re harmless, but they would never pass my lips in a more public setting.

You’ve got to read the play, right?! The reason I tend to be a little more relaxed about using humor is that I’m a firm believer in the power of laughter. It has all sorts of beneficial effects, particularly when your team is facing into difficult, uncertain, or daunting situations.

Being able to reduce people’s levels of stress and fear is incredibly important for every leader… and there aren’t that many tools that enable you to do that. You can try using logic to explain, rationally, why people shouldn’t be quite so concerned or stressed. But, the part of the brain that controls these emotions is completely impervious to logic. Your most passionate exhortations will barely move the needle.

Nothing breaks the tension better than a spontaneous bout of involuntary laughter. And, of course, your people are going to follow your lead. If you’re stony faced and intense, they’ll feed off that and they’ll mirror your demeanor. But if you have a lightness about you and a willingness to laugh in the face of adversity, it gives everyone else permission to be a little less serious.

The problem is, as time has gone on, it has become harder and harder to work out what humor might be appropriate in the workplace and what might not. In these strange times, when people seem to be perpetually offended by pretty much everything, the vast majority of leaders are simply deciding to not use humor at all… just in case!

If this situation persists, our teams, our organizations and the world in general will be a much poorer place as a result.

I’ve contemplated this quite a bit. The big question I wrestle with is, “How do we harness the benefits of humor in our leadership roles without falling foul of the fun police and without upsetting anyone?”

Being able to exercise judgment around this stuff is crucial, and it starts with knowing your audience. For Em and me, going out to a global audience with this podcast has been a pretty decent acid test for our judgment. And, I’ve got to say I think we’ve been pretty good at reading the play, which tells me that we’re reasonably sensitive to the nuances of using humor appropriately, without offending our audience.

It’s not to say that I don’t say anything that you’re going to find challenging. I pretty much call it the way I see it, and occasionally I’ll get a message from one of our diehard followers saying, “Yeah, not so sure about that one, Marty?”, which I love! It shows that you’re thinking for yourselves, and questioning everything – even the things that I say.

Although we are more than happy to be controversial, and I’m pretty direct in my delivery, we’re careful to not say anything that would be considered offensive. But, very occasionally, Em will catch a line in post-production where she’ll say to me, “Marty, I really don’t think you should say that”… and 99.9% of the time, she’s absolutely right. So, I rely on her judgment a lot.

We push it a bit in terms of both content and humor because we feel as though we understand our audience. And let’s face it, the name of this podcast is a pretty good filter. Anyone who’s likely to get offended simply keeps scrolling when they see the title, No Bullsh!t Leadership, which gives me confidence that none of you are snowflakes.

Or, was that offensive?


I mentioned Ep.145 in the introduction. There are a couple of foundational principles from this episode that I just want to recap. Laughter is incredibly good medicine for all sorts of reasons.

When we laugh, our body undergoes changes to its neural chemistry: Dopamine increases, and the release of Endorphins makes us feel happier; Our Cortisol levels are reduced, which relieves stress and tension; and, laughter stimulates production of Oxytocin, which increases our level of trust.

The McKinsey article that I cited in that episode (Laugh More, Lead Better) quoted the following statistics:

  • Leaders with a sense of humor are 27% more motivating;

  • Employees who work for these leaders are 15% more engaged; and

  • Their teams are twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge.

The book that I referenced, The Humor Code, also had some excellent advice for all leaders on how to regulate humor and to be judicious about what may or may not be appropriate. So, let’s revisit some of these rules of thumb, just briefly:

1. Self-deprecating humor is fine… as long as it doesn’t morph into depressing cynicism – that’s just not funny. For example, whenever I’d present to the Board of CS Energy, if the content was a little more technical than I’d normally deal with, I’d sometimes finish my presentation with a sentence like this: “Now, Mr. Chair, please don’t ask me any questions because in the last two and a half minutes I’ve completely exhausted my knowledge on this subject. That’s why I brought Dave, so that he can answer any questions that the board might have.”

2. Light teasing amongst longtime colleagues is probably okay… but just be careful who else is around and where you are. Other people may not quite understand the depth of your relationship and the fact that you’ve been trading jokes of this nature for a very long time and no offense has ever been taken by anyone.

3. Poking fun at outsiders can be tricky… I wouldn’t recommend it in a group setting. One-on-one, it can be okay, as long as it’s lighthearted and not malicious. But, for me, this is a no-go area. I used to do it frequently in the past, but I came to realize that what most people see as a hilarious and harmless comment, others may see as an attack on someone’s character. This stuff is in the eye of the beholder. So, in this case, I don’t think it’s worth taking the risk.

The summary from the book goes something like this:

  • It’s not whether or not you’re funny – it’s what kind of funny that matters. It has to be consistent with you, your style, and your personality (we’re going to have more on this shortly);

  • Clever and subtle humor is sometimes better than trying to be gut-wrenchingly funny, especially in the work context;

  • Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself because that’s a sign that everything is okay;

  • Laughter is disarming, so poke fun at the stuff that you can see that everyone else is worried about.

I think this is great advice for leaders at any level. If you want to explore my five rules of thumb for using humor in the workplace, have a listen to Ep.145: Humor is Underrated.


Before I launch in, I just want you to know that everything I say from here on in is based on anecdotal observations only. There’s no empirical research supporting my observations, which I’ve basically just formed through my extensive reading on leadership, politics, economics, and social issues… and of course, the work I do with our global client base.

Your experience, though, might be completely different.

I really think things have changed. Perhaps not the principles themselves, but the level of intensity, and the expectations around those principles. As I said, some people now make a career out of being professional offendees.

The stories I could tell you! My oldest sister spent much of her stellar executive career running HR divisions in global corporations, and some of the stories we’ve shared over a quiet glass of Barossa Valley Cabernet would absolutely curl your toes. (And, a big shout out to Brigid Gibson. She’s an absolute legend and she taught me heaps about business – she is my leadership sounding board!)


Since we produced Ep.145, I think there’s been even more scrutiny on what can and can’t be said in the workplace… this is good and bad. Let’s have a look at the good first:

1. The heightened awareness of things that might be considered offensive has forced us to be more considerate of our colleagues.

We now think twice before saying something careless which, in the past, might have inadvertently offended one of our people.

2. This, in turn, has forced us to have more empathy.

You can’t work out what’s likely to be offensive unless you can see the world through other people’s eyes. This is empathy, right!? It’s very different from sympathy, and my firm belief is that leaders should have boundless empathy.

3. It has most likely curbed the worst excesses of leaders who, in the past, might have wielded their power inappropriately.

The additional rules, heightened values, and greater enforcement of inappropriate behavior has made workplaces indisputably better. The change will take decades to completely filter through, but we’ve come leaps and bounds in the last 5-10 years.

4. As a result of all of this, people feel safer and more empowered.

You’re much more likely to get discretionary effort from your people when they feel safe, have a level of autonomy, and they aren’t fearful of how they might be treated.


So, this is all good, right!? But, like anything, there’s a downside… and this downside is really significant.

1. Many leaders have become so timid that they’ve succumbed to excessive political correctness.

They’ve just waved the white flag, going way beyond just being ‘extra careful’ about what they say. I’ve seen many cases where leaders have been unwilling to hold people accountable, to give them feedback, to set high standards for behavior and performance… just in case the individual doesn’t like it.

This is an unwelcome and unhelpful extension of the push to not hurt anyone’s feelings. It results in poor performance, and it isn’t good for anyone, least of all the people you’re trying to help. And, if you’re still in any doubt at all about this, just have a listen to last week’s episode, Ep.299: Setting a Higher Standard.

2. You can’t legislate attitudes.

It just pushes everything underground, and that’s a cultural cancer. Until people’s attitudes genuinely change, there will always be resistance – but that resistance will just become less visible.

I genuinely hope that, before this change is really consolidated, we wind back our expectations a little from the current puritanical perception of what’s appropriate and reasonable.

3. It is completely counter to the popular view that we should try to be authentic.

We hear the preaching from the high moral ground all the time: “You have to be authentic to be a good leader”. Many leaders I know, if they were to be 100% authentic, would have HR knocking on their door every single week.

I’m not talking about rogues either. I’m talking about decent, compassionate, empathetic leaders. Working so hard to be inoffensive can often push leaders over into projecting a persona that is completely the opposite of who they are… and this is a huge problem.

4. You miss all the benefits of a good laugh.

I spoke about it before: the use of humor lightens the tension; it gives people a little joy and respite from their serious jobs; it increases trust and it builds a more united culture.

Without humor, these things are difficult, if not impossible to achieve.


As I said, I don’t think the rules for using humor have changed much, but the sensitivity to those rules absolutely has!

The benefits of using humor in the workplace are worth fighting for. It’s essential if you want to have a well-rounded culture and team. As Steve Drotter, the lead author of The Leadership Pipeline (and one of the great leadership thinkers of our time) once said to me, “You’re only in business for two reasons: to make money and have fun!

But it’s becoming harder and harder to use humor sensibly. The thought police are using the current swing towards political correctness as a cudgel to beat us with. They’ll often gaslight leaders who care enough about their people to have a little fun at work. This means that for you, using humor may be a little risky.


To finish, I want to go a little deeper. I’m going to cover five compelling reasons why using humor (appropriately, of course) should be a critical part of your leadership repertoire.

1. You need to build a strong relationship with your people.

Humor breaks down barriers and builds trust. We know that the Friendly, Not Friends principle is absolutely critical. It’s hard to pull this one off without the use of humor, because humor accelerates trust.

It enables you to build a rock solid, professional relationship without having to get so close that it begins to detract from your professional distance with your people. We trust people who are more open, and humor helps us with that, so that you can keep the right tone in your work relationships.

Humor is your secret weapon, and the risk that your humor won’t be appreciated is nowhere near as great as the risk that you’ll be accused of favoritism or inappropriate behavior with one of your people who you’ve built a deep friendship with.

2. Your people want you to be genuine and relatable.

If you’re too guarded, people will sense this. You have to find a way to bring out your uniqueness, and to be yourself. Without this, people may feel as though you are being overly… choreographed. Your team needs to feel a genuine connection with you if you want them to give you their best.

You may have heard me speak about the concept of your leadership fingerprint. One of my favorite episodes of the last 12 months was Ep.257: Your Leadership User Manual. This should help you to work out how to integrate humor into your existing leadership style. But integrate it, you must! If you take some time to think about this, you’re likely to strike a balance that works for you.

3. These days, burnout is a serious problem.

Like a pressure cooker, every so often you need to let some of the steam out, so that it doesn’t explode. Humor is an incredibly effective release valve. It gives everyone permission to lighten up, to take a breath, and to reset.

If you don’t use humor for this, then what do you do? Give someone a day off? Well, guess what.. they’ll be back tomorrow feeling just as stressed – maybe even more stressed, because now they’re a day behind where they were before they took their “recovery time”.

4. Humor stops you from believing your own bullshit.

Of course, there’s a balance to find between humor and gravitas. Executive presence is important, there’s no doubt. So, you have to know when to deploy your sense of humor. But humor is going to stop you from taking yourself too seriously.

Ep.229: Confidence, Arrogance, and Self-Doubt was a great episode to help you understand how to be confident, with humility, not arrogance. I didn’t specifically talk about humor in that episode, but if you think about how to stay grounded, humor is a great way… especially using that light, self-deprecating humor that I gave an example of earlier.

5. Humor helps you to acquire Grace Under Pressure.

Not only does humor relax your team, it also has a calming effect on you. The tension that exists when you’re trying to put on a brave front, despite being incredibly unsettled… or stressed… or fearful… is obvious to everyone around you.

It doesn’t matter what comes out of your mouth, people pick up on any dissonance. If you can manage to look on the light side of a crisis, remain positive and optimistic, and crack a joke or two, you’ll be in a much better place to deal with whatever comes your way.


Let’s face it, humor doesn’t mean you have to be the class clown. You don’t have to tell jokes or repeat stories from your favorite comedian. You just have to be prepared and willing to take a lighter look at the situations you and your team find yourselves in.

Don’t be beaten into submission by the fun police. Sure, you have to use your judgment, but by taking some small risks with humor, you’ll discover the power it can bring to building team culture and performance.

You clearly need to respect the fact that the world is becoming increasingly more sensitive. But, to deprive yourself and your team of the benefits of humor would be a crying shame. You can’t wrap your people in cotton wool, no matter how hard you try. And even if you could, do you really think they’d be better off that way?



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