Use Humor to Energize the Global Workplace

By Gabor George Burt & Jamie Anderson March 5, 2019
Use Humor to Energize the Global Workplace

In the beginning, there was humor, and there was laughter. And it was good. But then work became suffocatingly serious. Until now. Today we stand at the precipice of a new era. Future-shaping business leaders around the globe are rediscovering the power of humor as a vital driver of organizational success.

In our interactions with leaders of the world's most successful and innovative companies, we have been struck by a recurring phenomenon: Not only are these leaders intelligent and forward-thinking, but many of them are also very funny. They are able to deliver a flawless punchline at a cocktail reception no matter their native language, as well as leverage humor as a strategic tool to achieve important organizational outcomes. Here are four steps you can use to do the same, no matter where you're located.

1. Use humor to foster a strong sense of corporate community.

Psychologists and social scientists have shown that people who laugh together have deeper feelings of empathy and bonding. So draw on jokes and funny anecdotes to get your employees and colleagues to laugh together. 

We recall a joke told by a regional CEO in a European-based telecom equipment company to open an employee meeting: The CEO said, "Knock, knock," and the audience asked, "Who's there?" The CEO replied, "China!"

The firm had recently lost important contracts to Chinese competitors, so everyone in the room immediately understood the punchline. The CEO went on to speak about the need for greater agility, alignment and collaboration.

2. Use humor to help maintain composure.

Individuals with a high sense of humor may experience less stress than those without, even in situations when both face similar challenges. Therefore, aim to maintain a sense of humor, first and foremost for your own well-being.

"While leadership is a serious responsibility, I do think we take ourselves too seriously at times," says Jamaica-based Mervyn Eyre, who heads infrastructure services for Fujitsu Americas. "I have no hesitation to L-O-L when I find stories or situations funny at work, and occasionally I even R-O-F-L-M-A-O." For the uninitiated, the latter abbreviation stands for "roll on the floor laughing my a-- off."

The CEO of SysAid Technologies in Israel, Sarah Lahav, offers this advice: "Work hard, go above and beyond your job description if you want to make a difference, and ensure you have a sense of humor. The last one is particularly important, because if you can't laugh at yourself … when you make a mistake, then life is going to be tough. Never ever forget your sense of humor," she says.

In group situations, you can utilize humor to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines or crises. Jokes and funny stories are best leveraged in these situations, not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose. Terry Davis, former CEO of Coca-Cola Amatil in Australia, was known for his sense of humor. At one gathering he blew up a vending machine that dispensed a competitor's product, and at another he took to the stage to address sales managers' falling behind budget. He asked everyone to stand, reach under his or her seat, and find what was there. Every seat had a $5 bill or $2 coin taped underneath. He then commented, "You see, all you have to do is get off your arses, and you will find revenue." 

3. Use humor to boost message retention among your employees, enable positive emotions and reinforce core company values. 

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group in China, is a renowned storyteller. His rags-to-riches story is inspiring because he overcame so many obstacles before achieving success. Here is the humorous, disarming way he tells it:  

"I had a lot of failures. I failed a key primary school test two times, and I failed three times for middle schools. I even failed my university exams two times. I applied for 30 jobs, got rejected. When KFC came to China, came to my city, 24 people went for the jobs–23 people were accepted. I was the only guy who got rejected."

Ma shares his funny stories of rejection and resilience to reinforce Alibaba's core organizational values of entrepreneurialism, risk taking and persistence. Try infusing funny elements into your own strategic storytelling.

4. Use humor to inspire creativity throughout the organization.

Laughter and fun release physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component for ideation and problem-solving. Future-shaping leaders recognize the impact of humor to generate creative ideas from all ranks, spur diverse perspectives and foster innovation. In the words of the global design firm Ideo's founder and CEO, Dave Kelley, "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."

Of course, humor can be subjective. What one person finds hilarious another may not, so knowing your audience is paramount. Leaders who score high in the effective use of humor also tend to score high in emotional intelligence. The global nature of business today means you must also be adept at adjusting your style of humor as you cross societal boundaries, an aspect of what has become known as cultural intelligence. "Outsiders" who have worked in Nigeria or Russia soon come to understand that while locals frequently joke about corruption, foreigners should not.

Now throw the instantaneous and global reach of social media into the mix, and we might soon be talking about digital intelligence, too. Using these new communication platforms, humorous commentary, if used wisely, is only a screen tap away from reaching audiences inside and outside your organization. HR leaders have not previously had access to this kind of "mass intimacy," which is a natural podium for humorous expression.

It's high time we jump to conclusions: Future-shaping business leaders are rediscovering humor as a vital driver of organizational success. Consequently, the joke is on you if you fail to seize its power in guiding your organization's ongoing relevance.

May the farce be with you.

Gabor George Burt is a leading business "transformationist" and creator of the Slingshot platform, enabling organizations to overstep perceived limitations, reimagine market boundaries and achieve sustained relevance. 

Jamie Anderson is professor of strategic management at Antwerp Management School and visiting professor at INSEAD. He has been named a "management guru" in the Financial Times and included on Business Strategy Review's list of the world's top 25 management thinkers. 

Burt and Anderson, along with Art Reid, are co-curators of Stand-Up Strategist, the first rating platform to celebrate and advance the organizational role of humor in business.



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