Why humour is a serious business for leaders facing crisis

A laugh among teams can help build trust, reduce stress and improve relationships, says Greg Orme – especially during difficult times

New research reveals a steep reduction in our sense of humour around the age of 23. It’s no coincidence that this is when many start their first ‘serious’ job. Daily giggles are suppressed and replaced with appropriately adult solemnity. The Stanford University survey showed the average four-year-old laughs up to 300 times per day, yet the average 40-year-old laughs 300 times over the course of 10 weeks. No wonder the majority of gloomy, unengaged workers love Fridays so much – even Thursdays have taken on a special glow. The dismal truth? Most CEOs, HR directors and managers preside over organisations where it’s rare to hear a giggle. 

This 9-to-5 fun deficit is worsened by coronavirus, at a time when we need humour more than ever. Remote workers report feelings of loneliness, disconnection and depression. The good news? Leaders can lighten the mood by using absurdity a little more often. Research shows funny bosses are perceived as more effective. Humour helps people to listen to, learn and take action from a manager’s message. 

Hilarity builds resilience. Studies show individuals with their sense of humour ‘switched on’ experience less stress than individuals with a poor sense of humour – even when facing the same challenge. Joking also develops trust in teams. A shared witticism transforms two or more people into a conspiracy by releasing the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which deepens rapport and intimacy. (This is great since all the other ways to release oxytocin have long been banned by HR…)

But seriously, shared references dissipate feelings of isolation and increase the solidarity of purpose needed to overcome adversity. The misery-scape of 2020 provides plenty of material for communal comedy: the tedium of never-ending video calls, wearing the bottom half of your pyjamas on a video conference, weight gain and higher-than-normal alcohol consumption. Last week, I heard someone ask: ‘How do you avoid touching your face?’ The response? ‘I try to always have a glass of wine in each hand.’

Humour takes a team beyond cohesion and into creativity because a lighter mood makes brainstorming more effective. Teams in global design consultancy IDEO warm up for creative work by first conducting a ‘bad ideas’ brainstorm. They list the most bizarre and unworkable answers to the challenge they’re looking at. The most ridiculous solutions provoke a few guffaws, which gets the chemistry bubbling. IDEO founder Dave Kelly comments: “If you go into a culture and there's a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee they're not likely to invent anything.” 

In my work with leaders at London Business School, I use comedy improvisation approaches to set the right tone for a creative session. In free association, you partner with one or more people and have to quickly connect a word to what the person previously said; for example, ‘mouse’, ‘trap’, ‘crab’, ‘grumpy’, ‘goofy’ etc. Another method, also borrowed from the world of stand-up, is the ‘yes, and…’ game. You simply agree to one rule: respond positively to all ideas for a limited period of time. You simply say ‘yes, and…’ in response to what you hear as well as adding a layer of detail on top. The funnier and more left-field your contribution, the better.  

Of course, it’s not a great idea to ever make jokes about people below you in the hierarchy. I advise managers: first take yourself a little less seriously. Self-deprecation helps reveal authenticity, forges human connections and often makes people think the self-deprecating leader is even more powerful than she is. This is a big ask for some senior managers, who enter every meeting room like Darth Vader sweeping onto the deck of a star destroyer. But my golden rule is: don’t ever punch down by making an employee the butt of your joke. Instead, punch yourself. Obviously not too hard.  

Greg Orme is author of The Human Edge and lecturer and programme director at London Business School