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Why humour is an essential tool at work

20 Jul 2018 By Dr Glenn P Wallis

We’ve forgotten how to have a laugh, argues Dr Glenn P Wallis – and that’s bad news for creativity and innovation

Lighten up. Seriously. We all know you are incredibly busy and that you are doing great and vital work. But creating a monastery-like environment with an absence of fun only works well for monks – and actually, lots of monks seem to like a laugh too, so it's unclear who such an atmosphere really serves. 

I am deeply serious about my work, but myself? Not so much. I learned early on that avoiding an overly earnest approach was the easiest way to bring the best out of others and myself. Being deadly serious all the time squeezed all the life out of the work. Allowing yourself and others some space for levity has the proven potential to bring about transformational changes, including: 

  • Positive emotions in both you as the leader and those you lead

  • Improved trust 

  • Greater identification with the direction of the team 

  • Increased affective (psychological) organisational commitment

  • Improved job satisfaction. 


An appropriate use of humour also positively impacts creativity and innovation across your team. This may not surprise you. If the boss ‘plays the fool’ at times, people tend to relax a little and that is the very best state to tap into creativity and innovation. 

But humour, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is this subjectivity that makes leaders nervous. Indeed, getting it wrong and using passive-aggressive humour – or thinly veiled bullying disguised as humour – can produce all sorts of negative impacts. With these cautionary notes ringing in their ears, leaders quite rightly don’t want to offend others – so they create a sterile, monotonous environment at work. That is a shame, and unnecessary, 

While I’m not suggesting you need to take on the role of team clown or start each day with your finest stand-up routine, it is worth noting that transformational leaders embrace (and, indeed, seek out) chances to see the lighter side of life. They don’t contrive it. They don’t cross the line and end up being offensive. They just have a light, humour-related energy that is able to see the funny side of things, including when it’s directed at themselves. 

There is a case for suggesting that the world is so serious that we seem to have lost the ability to laugh. Here are three ways you can you tap back into that life-affirming activity:

  • Find some time at home next weekend to stream your favourite comedy film. Indulge in it and relax. Allow yourself just to enjoy it and if you feel moved to laugh, go for it!

  • Look for times at work when a situation provides an opportunity to see the lighter side – appropriately, of course. 

  • Occasionally, when you make a mistake at work, revel in it rather than trying to cover it up or brush it off. Poke fun at yourself. Yes, it takes some courage to do that but it also shows a confidence that also allows others to share their ‘glorious failures’.


Humour isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. While it is a great addition to our experiences of working life, there is also a performance boost that can be gained for setting the right atmosphere that includes a lightness of touch. 

Dr Glenn P Wallis is an expert leadership coach and the co-author of new business book Leader iD.

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