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Top 10 Ways to Lead More Effectively with Humor
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via Stepcase Lifehack by Mike Brown on 8/12/10


Humor and laughter provide so many rewards. Studies have shown 20 seconds of laughter yield the same benefits as 30 minutes of hard rowing. A Robert Half International study reported 84% of executives believe a worker with a good sense of humor does a better job. Incorporating humor more effectively in the workplace allows you to defuse difficult situations, reduce stress, create attention for new ideas, build rapport, and be a more approachable and memorable leader.

With those benefits, it behooves you to hone your workplace comedic skills. So in the tradition of David Letterman, here are the top 10 ways to more effectively lead with humor!

#10. Look for Joy in Life

An important step is continually looking for joy throughout your life. This happens in a variety of ways:

  • Focus less on yourself and more on helping others. Need help? Read “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” the classic by Norman Vincent Peale.
  • Laugh more – kids reportedly laugh 400 times per day vs. 15 times for adults. Aim for laughing 40 times daily to be at least 10% of your former self!
  • Regularly read humorous comic strips and look for quips and funny comments in your reading.
  • Even in challenging situations, hunt for something funny or humorous you can take away.

#9. Learn What Makes You Laugh

If you’re trying to laugh 40 times daily, it’s important to know what makes you laugh and have ready access to laugh-provokers. Figure out 107 things which make you laugh. Unrealistic? Hardly! Why 107? Because 107 is funnier than 100! Here’s a recipe for listing what makes you laugh by simply identifying:

  • 13 Movies
  • 11 TV Shows
  • 5 Words or Phrases
  • 19 Personal Stories
  • 5 Cartoons
  • 7 Audio or Video Pieces
  • 11 Comedians
  • 7 TV Personalities
  • 7 Funny Photos
  • 7 People You Know
  • 15 of Anything Else
  • TOTAL = 107 Funny Things

Collect & save these humor starters in a “Smile File” when you quickly need a laugh or comedic inspiration.

#8. Use Your Own Comedic Material

Personal experiences are the most genuine humor sources for effective leadership. Look for humor in situations from your own life:

  • Funny things you have said or others have said to you
  • Pratfalls, be they mental, interpersonal, & physical
  • Embarrassing moments or unexpected happenings
  • Times of change or learning
  • Difficult life events (yes, even these can be humor sources)

When turning personal situations into comedic material, remember lessons learned from a childhood humor staple: Knock-Knock Jokes. These simple jokes work because the knock-knock structure highlights familiar situations, uses only essential words and phrases, and clearly signals a laughing opportunity. They also demonstrate how humor springs from surprise. The laughs come from not knowing who or what exactly is behind the door based on the initial response to “Who’s there?”

#7. Adapt Somebody Else’s Material

Beyond your own experiences, there’s a tradition of “borrowing & adapting” (I didn’t say stealing) funny stuff from others. That’s why old-time comedian Milton Berle was called the “Thief of Bad Gags.”

Part of borrowing successfully is using easily accessible humor sources in ways many don’t consider. Beyond simply Googling “funny” in front of quotes, one-liners, definitions, pictures, or videos, here are two other common sources you can adapt:

  • Cartoons – You can use cartoons in various ways by showing one in a presentation, telling the cartoon’s story (potentially making yourself a character) without any images, or using its punch line as a starting point for new humor.
  • Comedians – Mainstream comedians’ jokes or catch phrases are another source to modify and adapt to your personality or work situation. Watch lots of comedians and learn how professionals do it so well.

#6. Understand Your Audience

Using humor in a leadership position requires understanding boundaries on its proper use. It all starts with really understanding your audience by:

  • Paying attention to top management’s attitudes toward humor.
  • Knowing the audience’s composition – this directly affects which humor types are appropriate.
  • Loving your audience as much or more than you poke fun at them.
  • Inviting others into humor since you can’t assume they share your same humor sensibilities.

In case you’re contemplating using ad lib humor, completely knowing your audience is even more vital. Ad-libs have the potential for going horribly wrong because audience sensibilities have been misjudged. It’s very beneficial to actually plan and rehearse ad libs. It may sound odd, but identify common work situations you encounter and think through what usually goes wrong or provides a source for potential humor. Work out some “safe” funny comebacks to use as “planned” ad libs.

#5. Know the Rules and Boundaries

There are blatant humor no-no’s in the workplace which are quite acceptable for an onstage comedian. At work, avoid harmful practical jokes or pranks, heavily sarcastic comments, and humor rooted in religious, sexual, ethnic, or racial themes. Think you know your work setting well enough to tread on this dangerous ground? Here’s some advice: DON’T. The way questionable humor will be perceived by a workplace audience is too much of an unknown to take big risks when your career is at stake.

Use this checkpoint to actually see if your intended workplace humor is SAFE. To pass the SAFE test, all of these statements need to be true regarding your joke, comment, or image:

  • I can Say/Show this to my mother.
  • It wouldn’t Anger me if I were the butt of the joke.
  • This wouldn’t trigger an FCC violation
  • Everyone in the audience will be able to get it.

With even a hint of one false answer, dramatically modify your idea or better yet, abandon it and start over.

#4. Get over Yourself

Effective leaders don’t take themselves too seriously. They’re comfortable laughing at themselves and letting others be funny as well. Leaders should become adept at appropriately using self-deprecating humor, i.e., self-directed humor downplaying your own talents, stature, or accomplishments

You don’t want to use self-deprecating humor on simply any topic, however. It’s most effectively & appropriately used in:

  • Situations where you’re comfortable & self-confident
  • Areas where your credibility & competence are clearly established
  • Ways that fit your known personality & sensibilities

Remember – when trying to borrow someone else’s self-deprecating humor, you need to share that person’s perspective & situation. If not, it’s simply deprecating! I once heard a decidedly non-technical Marketing VP call out “data geeks” in the audience. While that’s what they called themselves, she wasn’t a part of their group, and her comment, intended to build affiliation, fell completely flat.

#3. Need Humor Ideas? Just Look Around

The workplace is filled with situations lending themselves to comedy. Humor springs from exaggeration, wordplay, misunderstandings, ambiguity, contradictions, paradoxes, pain, and inconsistencies. If you work in any type of business or organizational setting, there are plenty of these situations to go around!

As a leader, it’s your role to use the proper opptunities to encourage and employ humor successfully by ensuring that:

  • Your humor makes others feel good about themselves.
  • Hurtful fun isn’t made of those less tenured than you in the organization.
  • You don’t use humor when agitated since it can lead to apparent meanness.

#2. Surround Yourself with Joy

If you’re looking for more joy and levity in leadership, surround yourself with joyful people. These are people who are funny, easily spur laughter, and routinely cheer people up through their presence.

Cultivate relationships with these types of people. Spend time with them, learn from their successful uses of humor, and emulate elements of their approaches that work for you.

Beyond basking in the joy these people create, select 3 or 4 of them to be an informal comedy team. As your comedy team, solicit their opinions to help you generate and refine humor ideas. They can also provide perspectives on potentially questionable humor material that makes it through the SAFE test, but still feels like it might not be right for a workplace audience.

#1. Dive into the Fun

Ultimately, the most important part of successfully using humor as a leader is actually sharing it in the workplace. Here are a few final tips to keep in mind:

  • Practice your humor in appropriate, low-risk settings to find out what works before trying it out with a bigger audience.
  • Signal a laughing opportunity through your words, actions, and tone. It’s also a good practice to give people “permission” to laugh in the workplace.
  • Finally, be earnest in using humor; don’t focus on laughs so much as lightening and adding fun into work settings.

Mike Brown leads The Brainzooming Group, helping organizations succeed more rapidly by expanding their strategic options and efficiently implementing innovative plans. He authors the Brainzooming™ blog, shares innovation ideas on Twitter, and wrote the ebook “Taking the NO Out of InNOvation.” He’s also a frequent keynote presenter.

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