How to Build the Funny Bones of a Solid Business Relationship

Are you and your business partners humor-compatible? You can use your wit to stay tight-knit.

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By John Ruhlin • Sep 12, 2017

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Picture someone in your life who shares your sense of humor. What adjectives other than "funny" would you use to describe him or her? Undoubtedly, you'd choose words with positive associations, at least to you: quirky, sarcastic, subtle, witty.

Humor is a powerful people-connector because, quite honestly, laughing just feels good. More than 30 years of research has shown that humor is integral to our most intimate relationships: That significant other who routinely makes us smile is usually in pretty good standing, even if he or she temporarily ticks us off. We all enjoy spending time with like-minded souls, including those who belong in the doghouse.

That feeling isn't exclusive to personal relationships. Consider the role humor plays in business: I'm not talking crass or inappropriate titillation here, but good, clean quips between colleagues and peers. People who are comfortable joking around are often seen as confident risk-takers, which is not a bad position to be in as a startup founder.

Related: Humor Them. A Well-Timed Laugh Speaks Volumes.

Is humor essential to lasting organizational ventures? Can it be one of the cornerstones of a business relationship? That's something we have to consider when evaluating the building blocks of company-related partnerships.

Using humor as a relationship foundation

"A day without laughter is a day wasted." -- Charlie Chaplin

Humor connects us on an intellectual level, even if the jokes aren't academic. Let's face it: Funny people are viewed as smarter, likely because they can think on their feet. These aren't the folks waking up at 2 a.m. with a retort they wished they'd launched eight hours earlier; no, these are people who can come back with witty rejoinders on the spot. That's why we gravitate toward humorous people: We forget what they said but remember how great they made us feel.

Of course, there's a danger in humor that misses the mark. A joint study by Harvard University and the Wharton School showed that gutsy jokesters with good timing and fast comebacks were were apt to be project leaders; those whose jokes didn't elicit laughter weren't so successful.

Related: Goofing Around in Meetings Can Boost Performance

Humor is subjective, of course, but it's something worth taking a crack at. Think of all those professional conferences you attend: Do the funny people stand in the corner? Never. As long as they use humor properly, they become conversation magnets.

From a personal standpoint, I have an inner circle of friends who value humor tremendously. We send random text messages that are slightly juvenile, but still crack us up. We share and refer business, and those clever jokes tie us together.

Mike Dawid, one of those buddies, uses humor often in his work. He's a top sales professional and sends emails inspired by the famous film, The Godfather, making prospects offers "they can't refuse." Every email he dashes off contains humor; he's silly, but he's also very successful. His ability to break down barriers and brighten others' days is an asset. We all expect to get a chuckle from Mike, and he always delivers.

As Rue Dooley, an advisor with the Society for Human Resource Management, noted, "People want to have fun." He should know; he's a comedian. Literally.

Hitching a ride on the humor train

"Laughter is an instant vacation." -- Milton Berle

Humor falls into two categories: the good and the bad. While you can't always know whether you're crossing the line, you usually have a sense of what's OK and what's not. Lean toward conservative humor that appeals to a broad base of listeners, and you'll have better luck. At the same time, keep the following humor-in-the-workplace tips in mind:

1. Take risks.

"I'm not funny. What I am is brave." -- Lucille Ball

When you're talking with a group of people of any size, it's likely that some of them will be unmoved by your humor. That's okay. Focus on those who "get" your jokes, and see that connection as a gift. During your next big presentation, don't worry about the folks who sit straight-faced despite your laugh lines; they simply don't share your sense of humor.

As a Harvard Business School researcher noted, being funny isn't a simple proposition, and most people realize that. An amusing tale always has the risk of backfiring, leaving the storyteller in a vulnerable position. Someone willing to take a risk in order to lighten the mood likely will be seen as a natural leader.

2. Be yourself.

"You can't study comedy; it's within you." -- Don Rickles

Humor cannot be faked. It eeds to be genuine. Take the unexpectedly delightful Wendy's Twitter account, for example: Social media manager Amy Brown is behind the account's often sassy responses to customers dissatisfied with their experiences -- responses the brand's fans love.

Wendy's humor is successful because it's well-tailored to each situation. Don't try to memorize dozens of lame knock-knock jokes to be seen as funny: You'll just look like an idiot, and people won't respect you. Instead, concentrate on inserting into conversations playful, tactful bits of humor that you find funny; and always make sure that when you choose those bits, you're someone your grandma would be proud of.

3. Go out on a limb.

"When humor works, it works because it's clarifying what people already feel. It has to come from someplace real." -- Tina Fey

Our world is mired in political correctness, and that can stop humor if you let it. My friend, Mike, doesn't let it stop him. He talks about his faith -- historically a taboo topic -- because he's comfortable doing so. People respond with appreciation and rarely find his straightforwardness off-putting because he's speaking his truth. He's seen as authentic, not a sheep grazing with the rest of the flock; in fact, he's marching straight over the side of the hill to find greener pastures, shepherds and fences be darned.

Related: Be Thankful for the Sense of Humor That Lets You Laugh About What Isn't Really So Funny

Humor has a firm place in our society, and it inevitably carries over into our working lives. The next time you're forming a business partnership, gauge your humor-compatibility quotient with the other person. It's not necessary for you to enjoy boisterous banter with your corporate buddies, but that never hurts. People who can share lighter times are more apt to more successfully navigate serious moments, because those moments are reinforced by a history of humor-ingrained trust.

John Ruhlin

Founder and CEO of the Ruhlin Group

John Ruhlin is an entrepreneur, international speaker and author of Giftology. More relationship and referral strategies can be found at Giver's Edge.

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