3 Reasons Why Leaders Should Use Humor To Unlock The Potential Of Others

Another sideways glance and furrowed brow from a presentation attendee around 25 years my senior after another presentation about how humor makes better leaders: “I get where you’re coming from, but I don’t see why I should change what I’ve always done.” I’m used to this response by now, but at first, it was hard not to snap back, “WERE YOU LISTENING AT ALL!?” Then came the realization that I was tucking a fake mustache and a papal mitre into a suitcase while this sharply dressed, more-successful-than-me executive questioned my credibility. I get it. When you picture a successful business executive, what do you see? How do they carry themselves? Dignified? With importance? Are they stern? Some Mad Men-esque Don Draper figure pops into many minds, but with a little bit of humor and a loosening of the tie, leaders can take an already successful enterprise away from renting a Bentley from Enterprise to blasting off into the cosmos on the Starship Enterprise. A little bit of humor coming from the top can unlock maximum potential in your people, and here are three reasons why:

1. Makes you more approachable

A warm smile and a hearty laugh go a long way to make you appear approachable to the people who call you “boss.” When we’re able to laugh, especially at our own mistakes, it makes you more human, thus more relatable, by communicating to those who may be too shy to come to you with ideas. I hear the platitude, “My office is always open,” from many managers, but just because it’s open, doesn’t mean people feel comfortable coming in. By having the vulnerability to be able to laugh and be open to others laughing at you it makes others actually want to see you succeed as a leader, as long as you’re open to their ideas.

2. Sparks creativity and trust

When people genuinely laugh, it’s when they’re at their most authentic, and seeing someone in a leadership position so open to being real creates a natural sense of trust.  When we trust our leaders are authentic, it gives us an intrinsic motivation to want to help them overcome challenges and difficulties or come up with new ideas. If you’ve ever had a boss you’ve loved, you know that feeling of wanting to overdeliver for them. By laughing and being real about your own mistakes, it communicates that your employees don’t have to be perfect. Think about it, would you rather be around someone minding their Ps and Qs and calculating what they’re saying or someone who is real?

3. Reduces sick days

What? How do you reduce sick days by laughing? I don’t want to dive too deep into the biology of what happens when we laugh, but at the very least, it increases blood flow, reduces muscle tension, and massages internal organs. That’s not something a chair at Brookstone or a masseuse at your local strip mall can do. All of these unintended results of laughter being a core part of work allow your employees’ blood pressure to go down so they’re feeling better, taking less time off, and working with a renewed energy.

If what you’ve been doing as a leader all of these years is working, by all means, stick with it! I’m not saying you should overhaul the way you run manage, but you should definitely find more reasons to laugh, especially if it’s at your own mistakes. We’re all human; communicate that it’s okay to be more human to your team and you’ll unlock even more of their potential than you even dreamed.

Humor and Grief: Putting the ‘FUN’ in Funerals

When a close relative of yours gets murdered, it shakes the foundation of your existence; it can send you on a downward spiral of depression, dependency, and regret. One of the toughest moments of my life was learning of the passing of my aunt, Kristie, at the hands of her own daughter – my cousin Taylor. I was lying in bed around 7 AM after a late night of shock and questioning reality – we had already known Kristie had been killed, but when we went to bed, we didn’t know the culprit – when my dad burst into my room with hate in his voice, declaring, “Taylor did it.”

My first thought was, “Christmas is going to be awkward this year.” I stopped myself from laughing: “This isn’t the time to make jokes.” The next few weeks were miserable – every day we learned more and more gruesome details about the murder. If you were to drive by our house, it would’ve been the one with the black cloud hovering above it. You always hear people say things like, “That kind of stuff happens on the news, it doesn’t happen to us,” so none of us really knew how to cope. We spend a lot of time together, consoling and comforting one another. In college at the time, I confronted my vulnerability by skipping two straight weeks of class – the only percentage I got was the .09 I blew into a breathalyzer. Needless to say, none of the family could find a way out of the black hole we were stuck in… until the funeral. That’s when I finally gave in to the humor of the whole situation.

During the eulogy, the minister said, “This is a celebration of life!” I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “celebration,” I think “party,” and not one person was partying. Besides, if you were to invite me to a party, then inform me it’s at a church, everyone would be crying, and the DJ would be bagpipes, I’d politely decline. And one more thing: he called it a “celebration of life…” with a dead body in the middle of the room – you couldn’t get more contradictory. That’s like having an open bar at a sobriety party. I had to laugh – and the moment I did, it was like a weight was lifted off of my chest. I began to notice even more incongruities: the first three letters in ‘funeral’ are ‘F-U-N,’ Kristie found joy in the happiness of others and, ironically enough, EVERYONE THERE WAS CRYING, and a stranger no one there had ever met sobbed uncontrollably into the microphone for five minutes, blubbering on about how he wished more people had known Kristie, while we wondered who the hell knew who that guy was.

In the face of tragedy was the moment I realized the power laughter has over our fears, stress, and sadness. But it shouldn’t come as such a shock: science has known this for some time now

A study from the University of Berkeley, bereaved widows and widowers able to laugh about their loss were observed to be happier, better equipped to deal with distress, and better socially adapted.

A study done at Kent State and reported in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care revealed that humor was present in 85 percent of 132 observed nurse based visits. Amazingly, they found that 70 percent of the humor was initiated by the patient.

Humor provides us with relief, not by washing away bad feelings, but by activating them, along with positive ones, so that we can enjoy a complex emotional experience. Tragic circumstances are an effective breeding ground for humor because they provide the same release as horror movies, allowing the participants to confront their emotions head-on.       –Scott Weems (author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why)

How have you used humor in the face of tragedy? How have you helped others experiencing tragedy, trauma, or even just a bad day smile?

Each of us has had a “Christmas is going to be awkward this year,” lean into it and let yourself laugh.