With Martin G. Moore

Episode #145

Humour is Underrated: Leadership should be fun!

We spend a lot of time talking about the difficult elements of leadership, and how to overcome them. Mastery of the right habits, behaviors, and mindset is crucial if you want to have a successful and happy career.

But what about having fun at work? Let’s face it – we have very serious jobs, doing very serious work for our very serious stakeholders. But it doesn’t mean that every interaction has to be deathly serious. Knowing when and how to lighten the mood is a delicate balance that takes years to master.

This episode unlocks the benefits of bringing your sense of humor into the workplace, and shows how you can improve your team dynamics and culture by knowing how to introduce some humour. Giving your people permission to have fun is something they will value, and the whole team will benefit from.

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Episode #145 Humour is Underrated: Leadership should be fun!

We spend a lot of time talking about the difficult elements of leadership and how to overcome them. Mastery of the right habits, behaviours, and mindset is crucial if you want to have a successful and happy career. That’s why having a good sense of perspective is such a valuable tool.

Our people take cues from us about how important certain things are and what they should be worried about. Humour is a very big piece of this puzzle when we’re trying to give our people a sense of perspective and focus them on the right things.

As a leader, you have a duty of care to your people and your organisation, which you have to take very seriously. Let’s face it, we have very serious jobs doing very serious work for our very serious stakeholders, but it doesn’t mean that every interaction has to be deathly serious.

I would frequently say to my close team, “Guys, lighten up a bit! We’re not performing cardiothoracic surgery here. No one’s dying on the table. So just chill out a bit!”.

But how do you maintain the sense of urgency? How do you drive high performance and how do you produce superior results, if you’re not serious all the time?

Well, today we’re going to unlock the benefits of bringing your sense of humour into the workplace, and show how you can improve your team dynamics and culture by knowing when it’s time for a laugh.

Giving your people permission to have fun is something they’ll value and the whole team will benefit from.

  • I’m going to start today’s episode with a joke.

  • Hopefully you’ll find it amusing enough to stick with me for the next point, where I look at the science and research on humour in the workplace.

  • I’ll finish with a few tips for introducing humour into your work day.

A joke to get us started…

What better way to start this article humour in the workplace than by telling a joke.

You might not all find this as funny as I did when I first heard it but hey, I figured if I can’t at least amuse myself, I’ve got no chance of entertaining any of you.

There was a company that had been traditionally a very high performing company in its industry. It just started to take a turn for the worse and it was spiralling downwards: profits were plummeting and eventually the board had to take action. So they sacked the CEO and brought a new one in.

The new CEO, on his first day in the office was coming into the reception area, when he bumped into the outgoing CEO. The outgoing CEO said, “Look, there’s no hard feelings, mate. I want you to know that I wish you all the best in this job, and I’ve even given you a hand – in the top drawer of your office desk, what you’re going to find is three envelopes. They’re just marked simply one, two and three. You open them in that order, but only when you really, really need them. When you get stuck, you open that first envelope and you can take action.”

So the new CEO didn’t think too much of it. He went into the office and got himself started. When he went to his first board meeting, he said, “Look, I understand the industry, and I think I know the problems of your company, and I’m going to have this back in shape within six months.”

Of course, when six months came by, the company was in even worse shape. The new CEO had no idea what to do. He was just about to go into a board meeting and he had no way of explaining why performance hadn’t lifted.

He opened that top drawer and he pulled out the first envelope, and he opened it, and inside the envelope was simply two words: “BLAME ME”. He thought, yeah, what a great idea.

He went into the boardroom and he said, “Look, this is taking longer than I thought. The problems here are much more severe than I’d anticipated, because the previous CEO had really run this place into the ground.” And the board accepted that, and he went on.

Six months later, things still hadn’t improved. The company was on the brink of liquidation and he didn’t know what he was going to do about it.

The CEO went opened the top drawer, and pulled out the second envelope. When he opened it, he found that it simply had one word: “RESTRUCTURE”… genius!

So he went into the board meeting, and he said, “Look, I now know what all the problems are. I know how to recover the organisation, but I have to restructure it because the structure was wrong.” So the board accepted this and gave him some more latitude.

Then six more months went by and the company’s performance still hadn’t turned around. In desperation, the CEO went into the office, opened that top drawer, and pulled out the third envelope.

When he opened it, it simply said, “MAKE THREE ENVELOPES, MATE!”.

Hopefully you enjoyed that, as much as me. It’s one of my favourites, and it’s a great way to lead into the topic of humour in the workplace.

The science and research on humour in the workplace

I recently came across a McKinsey article that highlighted the benefits of humour in the workplace. It found that laughter is one of the most powerful ways to build connection and trust with your people.

When we laugh, there are actually physical changes to our neural chemistry. Laughter increases our level of Dopamine, which makes us feel happier. It reduces Cortisol, which is a stress chemical. It releases Endorphins, which makes us feel euphoric and it increases Oxytocin, which is a drug that promotes trust. Now the McKinsey study quotes the following numbers:

Leaders with a sense of humour are 27% more motivating and admired, than leaders without. Their employees are 15% more engaged; and their teams are twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge.

Those are pretty interesting figures.

I also managed to track down an old article by Alison Beard, who’s a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, which was published in May of 2014. It’s a great read, so I’ll put a link in the show notes for you.

Beard cites a book by Peter McGraw called “The Humour Code”, in which he tries to work out what makes stuff funny. This is really interesting. It’s like trying to decompose the anatomy of a joke.

What McGraw found was that the funniest things come from what he calls “benign violations”, so subject matter that is either wrong, unsettling or threatening, but is also somehow OK, acceptable or safe.

Even as I say those words, it’s obvious how this can be a problem in the workplace. You have to know your crowd. That’s one of the reasons that humour doesn’t always work with strangers because there’s no common understanding. Good humour is built on layers of shared knowledge and innuendo. For that reason, humour is a lot easier to get wrong than it is to get right.

In this article, Beard talks about what type of humour is likely to work and states that things like self-deprecating stories shared between people he is, is likely to be fine. Light teasing amongst long-time colleagues will most likely be okay.

Privately poking fund at outsiders, when the whole group shares the sentiment, will also probably pass muster. Remember this article was seven years ago and I think things have changed a little since then.

Self-deprecating humour is probably fine, as long as it doesn’t morph into depressing cynicism: let’s face it, that’s just not funny. I used to use this type of humour liberally as a senior executive and CEO and I’ve got to say, I found a pretty effective.

For example, as many of you know, I ran a multi-billion dollar energy business, AND I had no experience in the energy sector. So when I had to do things that were highly technical in nature, like chairing our market risk committee, or sitting on a joint venture board that scrutinised power station asset performance, I was a little out of my depth (to say the least). But instead of trying to cover my obvious ineptitude, I’d highlight it with humour. For example, I’d give my views on a particular market trading strategy and finish my diatribe with something like this: “Now, listen, everyone. Please don’t ask me any questions because in the last two and a half minutes, I have COMPLETELY exhausted my knowledge base on this subject.”

Let’s think about light teasing amongst long time colleagues. Look, I think it’s probably okay, but you have to be careful who else is around and where you are. Other people may not understand the depth of your relationship and the fact that you’ve probably traded jokes and comments for a really long period of time with no offence being taken by either party.

It does remind me of a situation though, where I had little banter with a close colleague of mine in a group meeting once. It was a very innocuous exchange, but one of the older women at the meeting took offence on his behalf. She said, “I don’t think that what you just said is aligned with our company values.”

I’ve got to say, I completely disagreed with her statement, but rather than arguing it out, I conceded and apologised for any offence caused. Let’s face it, I love the way that she felt safe enough to pull the CEO up in front of a room full of people. It was a really good sign of a healthy culture. So, when it comes to that banter between colleagues that know each other really well, just be a little bit careful because, even if other people only overhear it, they can misinterpret it.

How about poking fund at outsiders? Look, I think this is probably too dangerous, and not recommended in group settings. One-on-one can be okay as long as it’s lighthearted and not malicious, but this is one of the no-go areas for me now. I used to do it frequently in my past, but came to realise that what most people see as a hilarious and harmless comment, others see as a seriously offensive attack, this stuff is in the eye of the beholder, so don’t risk it. There are too many people these days who are looking for any opportunity to claim that they’ve been offended by something. So it’s absolutely not worth the risk in my view.

To summarise the findings from the book, “The Humour Code” that was mentioned in Beard’s article, I think it goes something like this: It’s not whether or not you’re funny, it’s what kind of funny, that matters. And it has to be consistent with you as an individual. Clever and subtle humour is sometimes better than gut wrenching guffaws, especially in the work context. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself because that’s a sign that everything’s okay. Finally, laughter is disarming – poke fun at the stuff that you can see everyone else is worried about.

Rules of thumb for humour in the workplace

I think we’ve established that humour in the workplace has many benefits and it’s an important part of your leadership toolkit. So here’s a few rules of thumb to help you navigate the treacherous waters.

#1 You can’t teach a sense of humour

It’s developed over the course of your life, by your attitude, your belief systems and the humour that you’re exposed to. Now, I’ve never found the ‘man slips on banana peel’ style of humour, particularly funny. But I love the subtle, dry wit of British humour. For those of you are old enough, think Yes, Minister, Blackadder, and Monty Python. Also, I love the irreverence and the sheer in-your-face shock value of South Park. Now, many of you might find Monty Python terminally dull, or South Park unacceptably offensive. And this is my point… everyone is different and everyone finds different things funny. That’s why bringing humour into the workplace is really tricky. The rule here is always err on the side of caution.

#2 Develop a personal lightness

If you’re always running around looking serious and stressed, that’s the mood and culture you’ll create. Learn to smile, to let people hear you laugh and have a light energy. And this is interesting.

Many years ago, I worked for a CEO who, by the way, was one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for. He told me I needed more gravitas as an executive. He was probably right. My lightness was too light. I’d be too quick to find humour in a situation. I’ve got to say, I was a little cynical about how many life-or-death conversations the executive team seemed to engage in.

I didn’t think they were at all warranted and let’s face it, I thought that some of the other executives were just full of shit – they took themselves too seriously. I’d happily hose those issues down with a joke or a wisecrack. I did need to find a better balance between the serious focus that I needed for the job and the lightness that I could bring to it. But I was probably in my mid-forties before I started to get this balance right.

#3 Make sure you don’t offend anyone

I got away with a lot of things in the past that I would never dream of saying today. Once, in a very serious executive meeting, I had to lighten the mood a little. The CEO was grilling one of the executives about a major project that had run into some serious difficulty.

I’ve got to tell you the mood was sombre. You could have cut the air with a knife. As the executive in question fumbled for excuses, I sat there nodding my head slowly. The CEO looked around at me and said in a mock tone, “Oh, well apparently this is all okay. I can see the acting CFO nodding his approval.”

I jumped in quick as a flash and said, “Oh, Lance, you misunderstand me. This is my Tokyo nod. It doesn’t mean, I agree, it just means I understand what he’s saying.”

Now everyone broke out, laughing. It lightened the mood and it broke the tension. So mission accomplished, right?

But let’s face it, it wasn’t respectful to the Japanese culture, despite the fact that it was probably fairly accurate (otherwise it wouldn’t have been funny). But I would never say that today because it is offensive. And I apologise to any of our Japanese listeners for that story who may have taken offence… Shazai shimasu.

#4 Learn to read the play

You wouldn’t make a joke about a very serious situation or incident, and the colloquial expression “too soon?” is a pretty good guide here.

For example, a number of years ago, one of the workers in my organisation narrowly escaped being killed. He was just about to do some maintenance on a coal crusher, and to do so he had to actually get inside the machine and hose it down.

Without warning, the coal crusher started up. It hadn’t been isolated properly. If it had started a few minutes later with a person inside, he would have been killed almost instantly.

The events leading up to that incident where the isolation wasn’t implemented properly, could best be described as a comedy errors. But the seriousness of the incident and its potential to have really hurt someone, sapped all the humour from it.

There’s no way that even 7 or 8 years later, as I look back on it now, I can find anything even remotely funny about that situation. This is just my way of saying, you need to exercise your judgement as to what things are genuinely serious and what things would leave the door open to have a little bit of humour. Your ability to read the play will develop over time and you’ll probably get a few wrong, like I did.

#5 Pick your people

Knowing what might possibly be offensive to each individual you interact with in the workplace is virtually impossible. You never know what experiences people have had. It’s difficult to know whether or not you’ll touch on a sore point or trigger a negative response, even with the most innocuous humour.

Once again be on the cautious side. It takes time to build a working relationship and a rapport with people that allows you to introduce humour. Work out who responds to your humour, and who doesn’t.

With some people you’ll have an extremely comfortable, free-flowing exchange of dialogue in all its forms. With others, it will be almost all perfunctory business-related communication because that’s how they choose to present at work. You’ll have everything in between. You just need to be mindful of that, and to know the difference.

For me, I find the safest humour is the self-deprecating storytelling that opens the door for you to give something of yourself. This not only brings humour into the workplace, but it has the added advantage of letting people see who you are. This is what we mean when we’re talking about transparency and openness in leadership. People get a sense of who you are and it builds trust. It’s really, really important.

To bring it all together

I haven’t always got the humour thing right, but I don’t have any regrets because the positive impact that I’ve seen my leadership style have, has completely outweighed the very odd occasion when I’ve got it wrong.

Because I don’t take myself too seriously, I’m quick with a joke just because I think it’s fun. And I also understand the relationship benefits of bringing humour into any conversation. I like to hang around funny people, not serious people. There’s a time for serious. Don’t worry, I can do that too. I can do it really well! But my first instinct is to say, “Hey, we’re here for a good time, not for a long time. Let’s enjoy it all while we can.”

You need to be serious about leadership, and serious about getting the results that you’re paid to get for your organisation. That means you’ve got to do some hard stuff, but knowing that humour is a positive force in people’s lives, that it actually creates performance benefits, and that it makes otherwise dire situations bearable should be enough to motivate you to try the odd laugh at work.

It doesn’t even need to detract from your self-perception of being busy and important. If you get it right, your people will look back fondly on the days they worked for you. “We achieved great things and we had a lot of fun doing it.”

I’ll look forward to next week’s episode: “Succession Planning”. Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullsh!t leader.



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