Business – It’s No Laughing Matter.

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Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Or is it? It may not be taught in business schools or even at any university, but humour is a vital part of a leader’s toolkit. The appropriate use of humour, especially these days, can signal a wide range of skills such as courage, confidence, timing, intelligence, sensitivity, judgment, humility, competence, and attitude to risk. Teams with a sense of humour also have less stress and tend to be more cohesive.

If we had to intellectualise leadership – and we always do – we could say that team skill or competence follows preference. Simpler. People get good at what they like doing. And who they’re working with makes a big difference as to whether you like your job. Don’t believe it? Ask yourself what were your best subjects at school? Did you like the teacher? Nuff said. If people like their teams then they tend to stay together. The more a team works together, the more effective it becomes. Therefore, humour is often the cement that’s poured into the foundation of personal relationships.

There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and the link with humour might seem to some obscure. Humour though is naturally occurring, comes from a renewable source, transmits naturally, crosses generations and genders, costs nothing and if done correctly, reduces stress, pressure and workload.

It doesn’t even have to be verbal. How many of us even think about smiling when we meet people for the first time? It can be a good start. After all, most things we find funny are visual. The latest versions of video conferencing software have gone to the trouble of including gags. You can give yourself a hat, a moustache a unicorn. Anything to break up the relentlessness of working from home and going box-batty.

We’ve all seen Colin Hunt. We’ve all seen The Office. Humour cannot be done at people’s expense. That’s why the best sort for leaders is self-deprecating. This is not humble-bragging or virtue-signalling, it’s merely granting permission to the group to be themselves.

This has potentially real operational benefits. There are frequently problems that a team can see way before a leader. The culture dictates whether they are identified and addressed. How can you make that happen? Timed meetings where everyone gets two minutes. The leader goes last not first as is often the case.

Another way is the Church of Fail. Layout an area with a white line. Whenever someone steps over it they’re allowed to talk about a way in which they’ve failed. There should be no consequences. Unless someone confesses to the Brinks Mat Heathrow heist.

Church of Fail can also be revealing about what people consider failure. It also shows the standards by which everyone assesses themselves. And they do. Everyone has their own internal standard. The key is to align it with the group culture. That’s when you know you have a culture.

By the way, it’s not just humour that’s not taught in business school. They don’t teach collaboration, humility, empathy, compassion or sensitivity either. For the reasons why, we need to delve deep into education and why we have such an emphasis on individual performance. The vast majority end up in a collective enterprise of some sort. Yet no school or college gives marks for any of those things.

We’re moving into the final quarter in the Northern Hemisphere. The days are shorter. We have politics and the pandemic to cope with. The economy is in a mess. Many are worried, stressed and living from day to day. Humour can’t cure any of those problems, but it certainly won’t make any of them worse.

It rewards those that try.

The Infinite Leader – Balancing the Demands of Modern Business Leadership by Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren is published by Kogan Page. Available here.