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Laughter Is a Universal Language — Here's How to Use It to Empower Your Team Being able to make your people laugh can foster resilience, psychological safety and a culture of innovation, ultimately enhancing organizational performance and employee satisfaction. Here's how to harness its power.

By Bradley Hook

Key Takeaways

  • Laughter and humor inject a sense of perspective and lightness into the workplace, enabling individuals and teams to view setbacks not as insurmountable obstacles but as opportunities for growth.
  • However, laughter and humor must resonate with the core values of an organization to be effective.
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Sir David Attenborough once observed, "It is through play that the lion cubs develop agility." When navigating meeting rooms of large corporations, I see the word "agile" scrawled on whiteboards almost everywhere. Yet I rarely encounter a culture that embodies play. In a time marked by burnout, chronic stress and overwhelm, perhaps laughter is the best medicine for cultivating a culture of calm readiness.

But like well-being, you can't simply manufacture a positive culture. It requires active leadership participation. That's where you come in. Leadership is not management; it's about deeply connecting on a human level, inspiring a collective journey toward a shared vision. Laughter, in this realm, serves as a universal language, breaking down barriers of culture and rank to knit an environment rich in trust, openness and mutual respect. When leaders harness laughter with genuine intent, it doesn't just ease tension — it becomes a catalyst for collaboration and fulfillment.

Related: Want to Build Relationships? Find Ways to Laugh Together.

Why laughter matters more than ever

Laughter is a strategic asset, building resilience and promoting a flourishing work environment. It boosts endorphins, lowers stress and forges strong social bonds, enabling teams to navigate challenges with flexibility and innovative thinking. Laughter also indicates an environment of psychological safety, where team members feel secure and valued, encouraging open communication and risk-taking without fear of ridicule or retribution. This psychological safety is foundational for trust and innovation, leading to significant ROI for organizations. Companies that prioritize a safe environment report higher levels of engagement, reduced turnover rates and increased productivity. In essence, laughter not only enriches the workplace culture but also serves as a catalyst for tangible, positive outcomes in organizational performance and employee satisfaction.

A study by Bennett, M.P., & Lengacher, C. (2006) underscores this, revealing that laughter can significantly reduce stress and improve natural killer cell activity, thus enhancing the body's defense against illnesses. This aligns with the findings of Dunbar, R.I., et al. (2012), who discovered laughter's ability to increase pain tolerance — and I'm sure you'll agree that work can be painful sometimes.

Resilience through laughter and humor

Resilience isn't merely about bouncing back; it's about growing through adversity. It is the gateway to antifragility. Laughter and humor inject a sense of perspective and lightness into the workplace, enabling individuals and teams to view setbacks not as insurmountable obstacles but as opportunities for growth. This cognitive flexibility empowers individuals and organizations to navigate the uncertainties of the business landscape with decisiveness and agility.

Research by Papousek, I., et al. (2017) showed that laughter immediately increases mood and well-being, emphasizing laughter's protective effect against mental health challenges. Moreover, a study by Tugade, M.M., & Fredrickson, B.L. (2004) highlights how laughter and positive interactions enhance social bonds and collective problem-solving abilities, promoting a collaborative and innovative work environment.

Aligning humor with organizational values

However, laughter and humor must resonate with the core values of an organization to be effective. Humor that is inclusive and respectful will strengthen team cohesion and uphold the dignity of all members. Therefore, leaders must model and encourage forms of humor that align with the organization's values, cultivating an environment where every team member feels a sense of connection and belonging. I recommend starting with observational humor and silly one-liners, perhaps of the eye-rolling "dad-joke" variety (even if you're not a dad). Some low-risk examples of workplace jokes are:

  • "Lately, coworkers have been writing names on the food in the office fridge. I'm currently eating a sandwich named Kevin."
  • "You know what can really ruin a Friday? Remembering it's Thursday."
  • "What's the best thing about teamwork? Someone else to blame."

Avoid sarcasm or laughing at the expense of others — that includes a nightmare client or employee who has departed. Remember, jokes are inherently viral.

Related: How to Use Humor at Work Without Acting Like a Jerk

A blueprint for leaders

To integrate laughter into leadership effectively, leaders can:

  • Model behavior: Demonstrate the value of laughter, setting a tone that encourages light-hearted interactions. Start with a smile; sometimes, that is enough. Notice your posture and voice tone when you speak. Emotions are contagious, so be the change you wish to see.
  • Cultivate a joyful environment: Build a culture where laughter and humor are normalized, ensuring they are inclusive and aligned with company values. Ask team members to share what made them laugh over the preceding week. Build humor as a micro-habit.
  • Celebrate with laughter: Use humor to celebrate successes and navigate challenges, bolstering a growth mindset. Try starting and ending meetings with humor rather than diving straight into the agenda or concluding on a serious note. Ask, "What went well?" instead of dwelling unnecessarily on negativity.
  • Embrace authenticity: Share moments of humor that are true to you, building trust and authenticity. Your trials and tribulations — and how you've learned to laugh at them — can inspire others to see the lighter side of their challenges.

Integrating laughter into leadership is not just about adding moments of joy; it's about building a more cohesive and innovative team. Laughter, when aligned with an organization's core values, becomes a powerful tool in the leader's arsenal, increasing well-being and elevating performance. In the quest for organizational excellence, embracing laughter is embracing the future of leadership, where challenges are met with agility, resilience and joy.

Bradley Hook

Partner, Resilience Institute Global

Bradley Hook is a globally recognized writer and speaker, dedicated to bridging tech and human performance. He is the host of the Resilience Podcast, director of a standout documentary and multi-genre author. He is pioneering innovative solutions worldwide.

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