Four Ways Humor Can Make You a Better Leader

Nobody takes the class clown seriously. But that doesn’t mean you need to be serious all the time to be an effective leader. In fact, that will make you less effective. Left unchecked, seriousness creates anxiety and makes it harder for you, and the people you lead, to work effectively.

In family systems theory, Edwin Friedman emphasizes the importance of using humor to keep things loose as an antidote for anxiety. In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman writes about the importance of managing anxiety, your own and that of those around you. The effect of humor is to keep things less anxious. In doing so, it helps everyone. He writes: “The principles illustrated here have to do, among other things, with injecting humor and keeping things loose. The looser your presence is, the looser everyone’s relationship will be with you and one another.” (pg. 256).

You might be thinking, “I don’t want a loose relationship with people I lead. I want them to take me seriously.” Used appropriately, humor will not diminish that. Here are four ways it can help you.

Humor builds trust.

When you laugh, you release oxytocin. And, as I wrote previously, oxytocin builds trust, which is your most important asset as a leader. What’s surprising is that humor doesn’t just build people’s trust in you as a leader, it also builds trust among team members. That’s because the humor, and therefore the oxytocin, has the effect of building trust with anyone you come in contact with during the burst of oxytocin. In one study, people who watched a funny video clip were 30% more likely to reveal personal information to a stranger than people who watched a neutral video clip.

This goes back to Friedman’s point about keeping things loose. Humor not only builds trust, but it helps teams bond in important ways.

Humor supports innovation.

In his book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Little Discoveries, author Peter Sims shows that humor is critical to innovation. According to Sims, a playful and humorous environment is most critical for innovation when ideas are in their infancy because that’s when they are most vulnerable to getting killed. Game-changing ideas are much less likely to survive in a super-serious environment because you will err on the side of caution. Humor loosens things up so you are less afraid to go with a new idea.

Humor promotes more effective learning.

When you laugh, you also release dopamine, which aids in memory and information processing. When you are trying to get a point across that you want people to remember, make sure to inject some humor. This is true in a workshop, staff meeting, sermon or even an informal setting. Humor will make what you say more memorable.

Humor improves negotiations.

Researchers Karen O’Quinn and Joel Aronoff set up a study where participants negotiated the price of a piece of art. They found that when sellers threw in the playful line, “…and I’ll throw in my pet frog,” with their final offer, participants granted 18% more in concessions than did the control group. Another study found that sending an inoffensive, funny cartoon to someone during a sales negotiation generated 15% more in profits. It’s believed that in both these examples, the use of humor helps to develop trust, which leads to better outcomes.

Two notes of caution.

By now you should be convinced of the benefits of humor for you as a leader. However, I need to say two things, which may be obvious. One, make sure the humor is appropriate. An offensive or demeaning joke will have exactly the opposite effect. It will destroy trust and make the atmosphere more anxious. Two, don’t use humor to manipulate. It’s not a technique to get what you want, but to build more trusting, more effective relationships.

So lighten up. It will improve just about everything you do as a leader. You might even have fun.

Working Long Hours Is Cheating

By rawpixel.com courtesy StockSnap

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a quote I heard attributed to Jay Papasan, one of the co-authors of The ONE Thing. I think it’s spot on. Papasan says anyone can work long hours to achieve something. It takes focus to achieve while still balancing your life.

In fact, the evidence is that working long hours not only steals you away from other important areas of life, it’s a waste of time.

Research shows that working any more than 50 hours per week is bad for you and bad for your employer (or your business):

  • The difference in output between 50 hours per week worked and 55 hours is almost negligible. So, you can add five hours per week to the rest of your life without suffering any loss of achievement.
  • There is NO difference in output between someone working 55 hours per week and someone working 70 hours per week.

If you are spending more time working, but not getting anything more for it, you will suffer.

There are two areas of life that you cheat when you work more than 50 hours per week.

Relationships

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said that no one on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office. Working too much is a recipe for regret. The time you miss with those close to you can’t be recovered. Unless you are an exceptional person, your relationship with God is also likely to suffer because you will be too tired to engage in any daily spiritual practices.

Health

Working long hours will exhaust your willpower and make it harder to make the choices that keep you healthy. Number one on the list will be sleep. If you’re like me, when you have a long day you sleep less because you feel the need to wind down, as well as take care of personal tasks before going to bed. Less sleep and longer hours also make it less likely that you will exercise and more likely that you will binge eat on junk food. Just sayin’…

You might be able to work long hours without cheating yourself in one of the two areas above. You might be able to keep healthy, but not have time for relationships. Or vice versa. But is it worth it?

The way out is to be able to set boundaries and the way to do this is through self-differentiation.

Self-differentiation is the ability to stay focused on one’s own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures. Work pressures are definitely surrounding togetherness pressure, whether in the corporate world, non-profits or the church. And yes, there can be real demands to produce and perform. But if those demands require more than 55 hours per week of work, they are unsustainable.

And the big question is: How much of the pressure is coming from you because you’re worried about what people will think?

When you are self-differentiated, you are willing to set boundaries because you know what’s really important.

I recall as a pastor, I decided to coach my children in sports. I coached baseball, softball, football and basketball. This meant that I would often miss evening meetings at the church. Yes, I initially felt pressure because I felt like I should be at all the meetings. But, then I realized that if I needed to be at all the meetings, the church was too dependent on me. The interesting thing was that nobody complained to me. I think they respected the fact that I would choose family over church because they would do the same.

I realize this might be harder in some situations, especially at work. But you can’t do it all. And life is about choices.

I can recall a person who worked in a corporate setting where “face time” was everything. It didn’t matter whether you were actually productive. It was more about being in the office for long hours. As this Harvard Business Review article shows, this is foolish because managers in one study couldn’t tell the difference between those who actually worked for 80 hours per week and those who were faking it. Anyway, I remember this person telling me that he didn’t buy into the face time thing. He left the office every day at 5pm. Did his career suffer for it? Probably. Was he better off for it? Definitely. At least that was his opinion.

So yes, if you work long hours, you are cheating yourself, those you care about and you aren’t any more effective. You have more choice than you think to change the situation.