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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Sep 2, 2018

Do we all need to lighten up? Research shows that the use of humour by leaders can have positive impacts on innovation and other factors. 


Welcome to episode eight of the Leadership Today podcast. Each week we provide practical advice to address some of today’s biggest leadership challenges.

This week we’re looking at the use of humour by leaders, and the positive impact it can have on innovation and other factors. As organisations are increasingly needing to become more innovative, research suggests that humour may provide part of the answer.

But first, a story. I walked into the boardroom and took a seat at the table. As I looked around, I could tell the small group gathered were under significant pressure about decisions that needed to be made. They looked exhausted, and stared absently at their devices and notepads. We started with the usual introductions when, suddenly and without warning, I felt something heavy glance off my shoulder and crash to the floor. As I turned in my chair, I could see a large framed picture had worked loose from the wall and fallen to the floor - fortunately just missing me. As the person next to me turned the picture over to move it out of the way, I couldn’t help but notice that it was actually a framed award the organisation had received. And not just any award - it was a second place award for safety. “Well” I said - “I can see why you came second”. Fortunately the group found that to be funny. People visibly relaxed. Frowns were replaced with smiles. The meeting that could have just added to their stress, instead led to some genuinely innovative ways forward.

What does science tells us about what just happened? On one level science helps us to understand that the award fell to the ground due to a combination of gravitational force, insufficient anchoring on the wall and, as the award would suggest, a second-rate focus on safety. But, more importantly, science also tells us that humour and innovation are linked. Researchers recently found that where a leader uses humour more often, the people they lead are more innovative. The paper also has a great summary of other research about the use of humour by leaders - A. Pundt (2015) The Relationship Between Humorous Leadership and Innovative Behavior. Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 8., pp. 878-893.

As organisations face greater change, innovation is more important than ever. And organisations are increasingly distributing this need for innovation more broadly. So how can humour help to meet these challenges?

Here are five ways in which humour helps leaders and their teams:

  1. Humour often rests on an unusual twist or surprise combination of thoughts, and research suggests that, as a result, humour encourages people to combine ideas in new ways. Humour helps to establish a culture where it’s okay to discuss unusual ideas.
  2. Researchers also found that sharing humorous comments during meetings helps to keep idea generation going, even when the humour is seemingly unrelated to the topic being discussed.
  3. Stress is the enemy of creativity, which is why we often have our best ideas in low stress settings rather than at our desk. Humour helps to lighten the mood and reduces negative stress.
  4. Humour helps build relationships between leaders and their team, and between team members. Often humour will involve sharing a personal story - something that happened to the individual, or something related to the interests of the person. Humour helps people to get to know you better as a whole person.
  5. Research also indicates that humour helps to build what is known as ‘psychological safety’ - an environment where it’s okay to put out new ideas, and where mistakes are encouraged as a way to learn and improve.

As leaders, we can use humour as a way to connect with people, to reduce stress, and to encourage creative thinking. And these aren’t just a ‘nice to have’ - they’re increasingly core business, as innovation and collaboration become more central features of the modern workplace.

Here are three tips for leaders that want to incorporate more humour into their workplace and the way they lead:

  1. Positive - always use humour to build others and the organisation up - avoid using humour as a way of providing negative feedback, or criticising an individual or the organisation
  2. Purposeful - think about what you’re trying to achieve through the use of humour - what is it saying about you as a leader
  3. Personal - perhaps you don’t think you have any humour in you, but we all have funny things that happen to us - use humour to give people a greater insight into you and your life

This week I encourage you to explore the use of humour in your approach to leadership. Perhaps it’s asking people to start meetings with a joke, or spending more time with individuals in your team hearing about their week and sharing some of the funny things that have happened to you. Give it a try, make it natural, and let me know how you go.