How to ensure humor helps—and doesn’t harm—your team

19 Mar 2021 · 5 min read
Why business leaders should leverage laughter to inspire creativity, camaraderie, innovation and success, especially in times of crisis.
Silvia Andrade Edwards author square

Written by

Silvia Andrade Edwards, Head of Global Commercial Planning, PMI

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Every leader would agree that a healthy team spirit is a key driver for successful outcomes.

And there are few more effective tools to galvanize and motivate groups of professionals than humor.

This is a school of thought I fully subscribe to, because lightheartedness is part of my DNA. Reacting cheerfully is my default setting. Often it happens unconsciously—especially in the face of intense pressure. It’s a trait that serves me well as a professional, helping to defuse tension and lift spirits.

To me, the power of humor to temper stress, increase creativity and problem-solving, strengthen relationships, and reinforce trust can’t be underestimated. It also plays a critical role in times of adversity—and we’ve all had our fair share of that over the past year.

A lightness of being helps in a crisis

Few leaders have faced a tougher challenge in their careers than during the pandemic. COVID-19 has remodeled the work environments and methods we once knew, sparking fear and uncertainty among teams.

Often, fear blocks the very skills required to lift an organization above a crisis—namely creativity, problem-solving, innovation, and determination.

But when humor is deployed appropriately, these skills can be restored. Leaders with a propensity to carry themselves with a lightness of spirit and a good sense of humor can secure togetherness, ease individual concerns, reaffirm bonds, and boost innovation.

© Silvia Andrade Edwards

It’s all about the timing

Clearly, there’s a time and a place for humor. Used in inappropriate settings, it can backfire spectacularly.

But, when tactfully employed, it plays an important role. As any good comedian will tell you, it’s all about the timing.

I’ve also found that it helps to alleviate hostility. Peppering a difficult exchange with a little humor can lighten the mood and relieve the pressure. It’s incredible what a witty comment can achieve to make an uncomfortable moment comfortable.

Humor is that little gift we all possess to remind the people we work with that we’re human.

As leaders, this is vital—because we want our teams to relate and connect to us; to see we’re all the same.

The more humble and approachable we are, the more likely we’re able to inspire the team spirit central to progress.

And, of course, it’s important to remember that humor isn’t something inherent in everyone. If it isn’t part of your DNA, don’t force it. Most critical is having the courage to bring your true personality, skills and values to an organization. But, for me, there’s a significant element of kindness and humbleness in a humorous self-deprecating gesture—one that can endear you to your team and motivate them too.

One sure-fire way of achieving this is to put yourself in the service of a situation, and allow others to laugh at you. I do know from several colleagues, however, that well-intentioned acts of self-deprecation can cause others to feel awkward. Certainly, we’re a generation or two from these scenarios being universally embraced rather than cringed at—and this is especially true for female leaders.

Gender perceptions of humor

Humor, like few other things in business, is a complicated affair.

A recent study revealed the gap between how men and women who use humor in presentations are perceived.

Two controlled experiments were performed to isolate the effects of gender and humor, recruiting two actors—one male and one female—to play the role of a retail store manager.

Each actor recorded two versions of the same presentation—one with humor, one without.

Notably, the woman’s use of humor was scored as less functional and more disruptive than the man’s use of humor—by both male and female members of the test audience.

When using humor, the male “manager” ranked highly for perceived status, job performance, and leadership capability compared to how he was received when his presentation was devoid of witty anecdotes. However, when the female manager added humor, it resulted in lower ratings of perceived status, job performance, and leadership capability.

This is a sad reflection of how far we still need to go to remove gender bias from society—but does it mean, therefore, that businesswomen should avoid using humor at all costs?

It’s a dilemma that I have faced in meetings: Should I resist the urge to break the ice, or provide the miracle cure of a simple and contextual joke about the awkwardness? For some time, this remained an unresolved dilemma in my mind.

Finding the courage to quip

Today, I work for a company that is committed to establishing a diverse work environment. We want our employees to feel respected and supported. They should have an opportunity to achieve their full potential regardless of gender identity, age, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or any other diverse characteristic that makes our employees feel themselves—visible or invisible.

PMI is harnessing a culture where every individual is valued for who they are as people—not only what they bring to the table professionally. It is in this context that I have found the courage to simply be myself.

Now, I take every opportunity to have a good laugh no matter how serious I am about the business topic at stake. Creating an environment where others can laugh about me in order to rescue the situation and reach the final outcome gives me a great sense of achievement.

It’s a strategy akin to letting your child win the race just to improve their self-confidence. Does it play negatively on the way I am perceived just because I am a woman? Well, HRB’s research suggests so. Do I want to act differently? No, thank you—are you having a laugh?

Rather, I hope that companies, colleagues and society as a whole will evolve to eliminate this unconscious prejudice.

I’m not raising this topic to encourage a forced fit of humor if it isn’t “native” to you, but to simply increase awareness of it, and encourage discussions on how to initiate progress.

So, don’t be afraid to take the reins and start the conversation. After all, only by bringing it into the open can we all—women and men—consign this unjust discrepancy to the past and level up the playing field.

And that really would be something to smile about.


Top photo posed by models. © Getty Images