Back to Blogs

Are you having a laugh? The surprising power of humour in leadership

  • Publish Date: Posted 10 months ago
  • Author: James Kenealey
As life often becomes more complicated, stressful and tiring, we sometimes forget to find time for humour in our working lives. On average, babies laugh 400 times a day, but this reduces to only 15 times a day by the time you reach 35.

It is also evident that we laugh less on weekdays than at the weekend.

But why is this? We all like to laugh, and the evidence is clear that it benefits the mind, body, and soul. When we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of hormones, with increases in endorphins and dopamine being the most notable.

Why have we forgotten to see humour in the workplace when the benefits are so apparent?

Serious studies have indicatedthat humour has a positive influence on a range of desirable business outcomes. Laughter relieves stress, increases engagement, actively contributes to wellbeing, and encourages creativity, collaboration, and productivity.

One notable area that it positively influences is leadership. Humour is both a teachable skill and an underappreciated asset, can help both you and your teams look at the world in a different way, and promotes a better working environment for all. Here are a few of the ways:

The power of humour in leadership
It’s a demonstration of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. This is crucial in a leadership role, as so much leadership revolves around managing people.

Evidence suggests that funny people tend to be highly emotionally intelligent. Harvard Business Review discusses what humour fundamentally is defined as, and from this a link can be drawn between emotional intelligence and humour:

“We laugh when we find that something we’ve momentarily believed to be the case isn’t in fact true, and at others in the same predicament, and at stories about such situations, especially if they are linked to pleasures of other kinds, such as insight, schadenfreude, superiority…”

Therefore, in order to both understand humour and be humorous, emotional intelligence is required on some level, and mastering this reflects you as being a leader who is sensitive to the situation around them. A leader that uses humour shows that they have things under control enough that they prioritize humour and happiness. Therefore, employees are likely to put more trust in them. Ultimately, nobody likes a leader who is tone deaf when it comes to the emotions of others.

It projects confidence

According to Newsweek:

“The "broaden and build" theory also supports the idea that experiencing positive emotions through humour actually alters our thoughts, actions and physiological responses. It creates a virtuous circle effect that enhances wellbeing.”

Humour boosts projections of confidence and competence. It gets people to listen and engage with leaders and crucially creates a bond of trust that enables people to learn more.

Several studies have demonstrated that lessons that are delivered with humour are more enjoyable for students, and enhance students' comprehension and recall of the topic.

It is a powerful tool that many successful leaders use to enhance group cohesiveness and organizational culture.

It’s motivating through humanisation

The top result in a survey of ‘what traits inspire trust in a leader?’ was ‘one who speaks like a normal person’. Employees respond to leaders who are like them, leaders who rather than elevate themselves to a position of aloof superiority, aim to forge relationships on a human level. Humour is a great equaliser across cultures, political spectrums, and socio-economic circumstances. Leading with humour can help forge great relationships in the workplace in the same was as in your social life outside of work.

After all, who says work can’t be fun? Even if a team is working in a role that isn’t the most creatively satisfying for employees, humour in leadership can improve motivation and hence productivity. Studies of positive organizations suggest the more fun we have at work, the more productive teams are, and the less likely they are to suffer burnout, In fact, leaders with a good sense of humour are seen as 27% more motivating.

It puts people at ease

Laughter is disarming. In stressful times, poking fun at the things everyone is worried about can project control and a calming influence. This reflects something called the priming effect. Our brains are wired to see what we’ve been set up to expect. We find what we choose to see. If we smile, the way we interact with the world improves and hence situations can be settled in this way.

The pitfalls: the wrong ways to use humour in leadership

It’s important for leaders to be careful about how exactly they treat humour in the workplace. It’s not about being a comedian trying endlessly to get people to laugh – or especially not taking it badly if they don’t find your comments funny. Behaviour like this is likely to alienate your teams and push you towards being a David Brent-esque subject of ridicule.

Don’t make individual people the subject of constant ridicule. Making the occasional light-hearted joke about someone is acceptable as long as they are with you on the joke, but don’t make certain individuals the constant subject of your humour. Making the same person the butt of the joke all the time will likely wear thin very quickly, and could result in the subject feeling marginalised, singled out or even bullied.

It’s also important to be appropriate in the workplace – being a little bit risqué is OK but don’t let that develop into being too rude or insulting. Don’t forget where you are.

Ultimately, it’s not whether or not you’re funny that’s key. It’s what kind of funny you are. Be honest and authentic in yourself. Don’t try too hard, and definitely don’t labour a point that isn’t working.

Harnessing the power of humour can help build strong, productive and happy teams, as well as motivational for both yourself as a leader and the people around you.

Not having fun in your current role? Search our latest jobs here and find your career happy place :)