Using Humor to Fuel the Success of Your Organization

Guest post by Jamie Anderson & George Gabor Burt:

In business situations in which collaboration is an important driver of organizational success,
lacking a sense of community can be a formidable barrier to delivering results. This is particularly true in today’s complex and uncertain operating environments in which a culture of solidarity and knowledge sharing become critical drivers of staying relevant. In these situations, the more a group comes together around a shared objective, the more effective it will be. To this end, humor engineered by leaders can shape a culture of empathy and relationship satisfaction and be a foundation for greater alignment. 

But of course, humor can be highly subjective and what one person finds hilarious another person may not. So knowing your audience is paramount, and business leaders who score high in the effective use of humor also tend to score high in emotional intelligence. The global nature of business today means that leaders must also be adept at adjusting their use of the different styles of humor as they cross societal boundaries – an aspect of what has become known as cultural intelligence.

Now throw the instant and global reach of social media like Twitter into the mix, and we might soon be talking about digital intelligence for leaders too. In a digital world, a comment or joke that can potentially reach millions is only a screen tap away. Leaders have never before been able to achieve this kind of mass intimacy so they need to think carefully about how humor can and should be used over the digital medium.

It is well understood by psychologists and social scientists that people who laugh together generally have stronger feelings of empathy and bonding. Humor can be used as an especially effective approach to build group cohesiveness, with a leader as the role model of projecting a relaxed and fun attitude, sharing occasional jokes, anecdotes and stories that inject a playful aspect to day to day interactions. A highly successful Irish CEO is known for whistling tunes as he walks around the office, projecting an energetic, fun and relaxed demeanour.

In situations where a leader needs to increase sociability across organizational hierarchies, self-deprecating humor can be used. At a recent employee event, Alain Dehaze, CEO of the Adecco Group, was joined on stage by a young British intern who was shadowing him for the month. The intern was describing how much time the two were spending together, having visited six countries in just eight days. The intern quipped: “Just about the only thing I don’t know about him is the color of his pyjamas.” As quick as a flash, Dehaze responded, “That’s probably a good thing, because I don’t wear any pyjamas!”

But while self-deprecating humor can reduce social distance and make leaders seem more collaborative, participative and open, it must be used with caution. Humorous self-criticism works much less well as a tool to engage with peers and superiors, and can even reduce one’s credibility with subordinates if used excessively.

When used effectively, self-deprecating humor can also be beneficial in addressing criticism and resolving conflict that might negatively impact collaboration. Applying humor in such difficult situations has less to do with being funny and more to do with a leader’s ability to react to others with understanding and imagination.

Humor can also be utilized to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines, targets or crises. Social humor is best leveraged in these situations, not to make deadlines or challenges disappear, but to improve morale, to help individuals avoid feelings of isolation, and to increase the solidarity of purpose needed to overcome adversity. We recall a joke told by a regional CEO in a European-based telecoms equipment company to open an employee meeting: CEO: “Knock, knock.” Audience: “Who’s there?” CEO: “China!” The firm had recently lost some important contracts to Chinese competitors, so everybody in the room immediately understood the punch line. The CEO went on to speak about why there was a need for greater agility, alignment and collaboration.

Due to its tendency to trigger negative emotions, strong humor should be used sparingly or avoided altogether, and only ever directed at external targets where there is an urgent need to overcome complacency or strong internal inertia. During a difficult period for the company, the then CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer was widely condemned for joking sarcastically at an employee gathering: “I’m not here to announce lay-offs (pause)…this week.” In years gone by, strong humor might have gone beyond sarcasm to involve humiliation, ridicule, sexist or even racist overtones but these kind of jokes, anecdotes and stories have no place in today’s world.

The Internet is a new frontier for all styles of humor, but leaders should carefully think through their personal social media strategy before tweeting photos of their belly button. While having a sense of fun is acceptable in high Power Distance Index (PDI) societies in which individuals with authority are expected to have feelings of high self-worth, in these societies people of high authority might be expected to maintain or even increase power distance. So in these societies the leader should be careful in using self-deprecating and social humor. Of course, this becomes complicated for leaders of truly multinational corporations – a tweet posted in good humor in the USA could be perceived as completely inappropriate in Japan.

Time and time again in our interactions with leaders in some of the world’s most successful and innovative companies we have been struck by a recurring experience – not only are these leaders intelligent, talented and forward-thinking, many of them are also very funny. And it is not just that these senior executives are able to deliver a flawless punchline at a cocktail reception or town hall event – they are able to leverage humor as a strategic tool to build a sense of community within their organizations.

May the farce be with you.

About the authors:
This post is by Jamie Anderson and Gabor George Burt. Jamie Anderson is Professor of

Strategic Management at Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at INSEAD. He has been named a “management guru” in the Financial Times, and included on Business Strategy Review’s list of the world’s “top 25 management thinkers”. Gabor George Burt is a leading business transformationist and creator of the Slingshot Platform, enabling organizations to overstep perceived limitations, re-imagine market boundaries, and achieve sustained relevance.

Jamie Anderson’s TED Talk “What is Success, Really?”

George Gabor Burt’s TED Talk: “Beyond the Wall of Our Imagination.”