Over the years when mentoring aspiring women, I’ve recommended humour to find common ground, create bonds and relieve tension after establishing a boundary or standing up for oneself. I’ve also discussed presence, belonging and resilience as the three major impacts for career success and humour helps there too. Laughter makes us more effective executives while creating happy times at work.
When you have presence, you have charisma and people are attracted to your authenticity. A shared laugh can shift people’s impression of you from mechanical to genuine. In that moment, they will be attracted to you as an appealing leader. It creates an aura of good feelings and you get the credit.
When we establish belonging, we have people we can call on to help us reach our goals- networks, mentors, and friends! By laughing at others jokes and finding humour in everyday situations, we share good feelings, and we create deeper connections. It is affiliative, which makes us more approachable and breaks down barriers.
Humour also supports us by increasing our resiliency. The ability to laugh at ourselves gives us the courage to take on risks and helps us recover more quickly from setbacks. Finding the levity in things that didn’t go as planned gives others permission to do the same. In retrospect our failures make for the best (and most amusing) stories later. We simply need a little time to see that.
When there are so many advantages to using humour why do we take ourselves so seriously? Are we afraid of losing credibility? Or do we fear that if we laugh no one will laugh along with us? There is too much pressure to be normal and fit in when we could be held in much higher regard by using humour. Others that make us laugh are awarded a higher status.
I have a big, loud laugh and early in my career I worried that I might need to tone down my sense of humour to be considered promotable. Yet, I came to learn the opposite to be true. Because I laughed and found the funny in things people liked working on projects with me. My easy laughter was infectious, and they laughed too.
Using humour also made my ideas more memorable. When working at a company that produced potassium and phosphate, I included this quote in our company annual report “Lucious asparagus is full of potassium and phosphate and offers extra energy. That may be why French bridegrooms once dined on three courses of asparagus the night before the wedding”. It was risky but I considered our corporate culture as well as our audience and felt that it would fly. Our management laughed, while our investors enjoyed the levity. They most certainly remembered the benefits of our product!
Humour also points out issues. As the lone woman attending management meetings, I would watch the men in our office get up and exit the conference room leaving the table covered in coffee cups. Knowing their secretaries were busy I would gather up the cups and say, “Don’t worry guys I’ll get this. As a woman I have a biological need to clean up”. They recognized the sarcastic humour and then chuckled. Most importantly, they got the message and picked up after themselves, alleviating their secretaries of that duty.
I also used self-deprecating humour, especially as I moved up the corporate ladder. The higher you rise the more you can safely laugh at yourself. In lower positions you don’t want to diminish people’s perceptions of your work so it is better to laugh at topics outside work. I would tell disastrous cooking stories such as ruining the holiday turkey.
Learn to laugh by jumping at opportunities to lighten the mood. Laugh at others jokes and see the humour in things like trying to find the bathroom in a revolving restaurant. Give funny names to projects- I remember calling one road show group ‘Team Dirt” and our guys reveled in it. They embraced the title and it led to many more jokes as team members cited their attempts to live up to their name. There is nothing like being the straight man to create interaction.
Ultimately, careers are built on relationships and it’s hard to resist those who connect with humour. There was once a stock analyst that I was trying to win over but he was adamant that he didn’t have time for me. He was very buttoned up and very bookish as demonstrated by his monochromatic striped ties. I told him that if he would step outside his comfort zone, he’d do well by covering our company and in my estimation that would happen when he started wearing wild ties. In turn, that became my mission. I sent him many bright, colourful ties and we had lots of laughs as he continued to wear his ‘boring’ ties. One day he came to a meeting where we were presenting in New York wearing one of the wild ties I had sent him and announced he had put out a buy on our company. Then we laughed about that! Clearly, you can establish relationships, make a point and still have fun by using humour.
I firmly believe that by using laughter I increased my presence, belonging and resilience and it provided me with happy times at work. I grounded myself in humour and was rewarded with a more successful career. We don’t need more professionalism, we need more human connection and as the well known quote goes, “laugh and the world laughs with you”.