Laughter and a healthy sense of humor are among the most overlooked, underutilized communications tools at a CEO’s disposal.
Plenty of studies show that the levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine decrease during laughter. Some experts say that a raucous bout of laughter may trigger a response in kind. And researchers are studying its health benefits.
At an annual convention for local government officials in New Jersey last year, a panel of politicians discussed the importance of leaders using humor and how its use can ease tensions in heated meetings and even make officials seem more approachable. The same could be said for leadership at any level.
As a longtime CEO of successful startups and large public companies, I have found humor to be an essential tool in these four specific ways:
1. Creating a healthy company culture.
To have the most fluid, flexible and fast-moving company, you must pivot fast or you’re going to get killed. That fluidity is incredibly important in a startup environment as it creates a culture that lasts.
Using humor as a core value makes companies more fluid and less rigid.
You can be serious about the work and lighthearted at the same time. When you look at the light side, people remain more open, flexible, productive and motivated -- all helping to create a cohesive corporate culture and keep the company moving forward.
2. Keeping the team on the leader's side.
People gravitate towards those with a sense of humor. For leaders, this is key to building trust and developing open communication with employees.
If you can take a joke or are easy to laugh with, members of your team will find you more approachable and will be more likely to want you to succeed and will stick with you when the going gets tough.
Humor lets employees know that you, too, put your pants on one leg at a time and it’s important to not take life too seriously.
And humor is one language that everyone can understand. It breaks down barriers between people. If you can share a laugh with someone, you’ve connected with that person.
3. Getting through rough patches.
Every company has its ups and downs. And startup life can be stressful. During tough times, it’s the CEO’s job to motivate members of the team to muscle through. Failing to do so can spell doom. In such situations, laughter is crucial to quickly getting the team back on track and in a more optimistic state of mind.
When I was CEO of Candence, a much-anticipated IPO became stalled because of turbulent market conditions. This was a major, but temporary, setback for the team. Employees were dejected, but there was a company to run and clients to serve.
To lighten the mood, I walked through the office dressed like a vagabond pushing a shopping cart filled with now useless company prospectuses.
It got some smiles, even some laughs, and I’m sure an eye roll or two, but it also helped put this setback into perspective. The company went on to hold a successful public offering.
4. Opening new ways of thinking.
When I studied Zen Buddhism, I learned about a practice of slapping people in the head at a particular moment to get them to see the light and knock them off track.
Now, while I don’t recommend slapping your colleagues on the head, humor can have a similar impact.
Humor can knock a person off a certain track and open his or her mind to seeing something different. Humor produces incongruent situations. It plays to an underlining place that makes that individual question an assumption and see something differently.
When people become too serious, they might see things too narrowly and might need to be poked a bit.
Not all humor is workplace appropriate. But used intelligently in the right way, humor can strengthen your leadership and drive real business benefits.