Comment: Does humour make you unprofessional?

Naomi Bagdonas explains how leveraging laughter in the workplace can lead to real connection.

Naomi Bagdonas is a Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer, professionally trained comedian and co-author of Humour, Seriously: Why Humour Is a Superpower at Work and in Life.

For a lot of people, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about humour’s benefits: the belief that gravity and levity are at cross purposes. But the research tells a different story; humour is one of the most under-leveraged tools in the working world. No joke. 

Look at Sara Blakely, the founder and owner of shapewear brand Spanx. Today she’s a well-known, self-made billionaire. But when she was starting out, Spanx was a scrappy, bootstrapped company. Working from her bedroom, Sara was having a hard time getting retail buyers to pick up the phone, let alone selling her products. After all, Spanx was entering a crowded market and the most common misspelling of the brand’s name online redirected customers to a porn site. 

More than 100 failed cold calls later, Sara decided to take a non-traditional approach. She mailed some prominent head buyers a single shoe (a stiletto, I believe), with a handwritten note that said, ‘Just trying to get my foot in the door. Can I have five minutes of your time?’ As the saying goes: the rest was history. 

I’ve been obsessed with comedy ever since I was a little kid. Yet as a young woman in a corporate career, I always felt like I couldn’t bring that part of myself to work. It felt like I was leading a double life until, one day, pretty early on in my career, I was leading a workshop about teamwork to a group of executives when the most senior person in the room interrupted me to say, ‘Can you hurry up and get to the point when you tell me how I get my team to do exactly what I want without needing to ask them?’

‘I was mortified; I thought I would lose my job. It was the sort of sharp and biting comment you’d make on the improv circuit.’

He was sarcastic and it hurt, but I shot straight back with, ‘Great thinking. Come back for the workshop I’m running next week on mind control.’ Initially I was mortified; I thought I would lose my job. It was the sort of sharp and biting comment you’d make on the improv circuit. But after a few seconds, the room erupted with laughter and the man started showing me some respect. 

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. A recent Harvard Business Review survey of more than 700 CEOs showed that 98% prefer job candidates with a sense of humour, and 84% think that funny employees do better work. A course I teach at Stanford on leadership considers how we used to admire the bold, creative genius that stayed tucked away in their castle. 

The mystery around leaders was partly what made them so valuable. But with social media giving everyone behind-the-scenes access and, most importantly, the rise of mistrust in our leaders, it’s becoming more critical for leaders to give a window into their humanity and vulnerability – and displaying a sense of humour plays into that. People will want to work with you more and think you are more trustworthy.

Showing genuine human connection is a quality this generation wants more from its leaders than ever before, especially in this brave new world of work that, until the end of 2020 at least, is going to be remote. Sure, telling funny jokes is a good way of achieving this, but not everyone has to turn into a comedian overnight. There are different styles of humour – work out yours and lean into it. Simply approach situations with a smile and look for a little bit of joy.

This article was first published in Courier issue 37, October/November 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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