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How Humor Can Be a Superpower at Work (and in Life)

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done," said America’s 34th President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Ike” as he liked to be called, was also a Five-Star General in the Army. Who knew Eisenhower was such a funny guy? Clearly, understanding the value of humor served him well.

“Research shows that humor is one of the most powerful tools we have for accomplishing serious work,” say, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, authors of the new bestseller, Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life (And how Anyone Can Harness It. Even You.) “Studies reveal that humor makes us appear more competent and confident, strengthens relationships, unlocks creativity, and boosts our resilience during difficult times. Plus, it fends off a permanent and unsightly frown known as “resting boss face.”

If you Google “quotes about humor,” from Eisenhower to Maya Angelou, to Benjamin Franklin you’ll find some pretty incredible historic figures who understood its transformational power. Even Gandhi was funny!

So why, then, is humor at the workplace so rare and undervalued?

In a recent interview for New York Times DealBook Newsletter, Bogdanos breaks down four myths of humor from their book:

The first is the “serious business” myth, which is the idea that levity undermines the mission of your work, that you can come off as not taking your job seriously if you’re joking around. This is simply not true. Managers with a sense of humor are more motivating and admired. Their employees are more engaged. Their teams are more likely to solve a creativity challenge. There’s all this evidence around the R.O.I. of humor.

And then the failure myth: People think that failing at humor is going to have these huge repercussions… it’s so much less about telling jokes. It’s about cultivating joy.

There’s the “being funny” myth, which is that humor is about cracking jokes. Again, it’s really not about that. It’s about being more generous with your laughter. It’s about naming truths in our lives and giving a window into our humanity.

And then lastly, the “born with it” myth, which is the idea that our sense of humor is either there or it’s not. In fact, it is a muscle that we can work.

Humor won the day for Loews Hotels CEO, Jonathan Tisch, when he dressed in drag for a video, as part of a pitch to the city of Miami Beach. “I dressed like my mother and did interviews with men and women in South Beach about the possibility of Loews Hotels and the Tisch family returning. The competition was fierce. There were 500 to 600 people at the Miami Beach Convention Center when we made the presentation. For the first 60 seconds of the video, there was silence and I truly saw my life pass in front of me. But when the video was over, people were laughing hysterically. And then we unanimously won the vote.” Loews Miami Beach opened in 1998 – a calculated risk that paid off.

Humor at the workplace can be incredibly beneficial or fall so flat it becomes cringeworthy. So, check out these tips from Humor, Seriously… and leave ‘em laughing!

Examine the truth. Is this observation still true or appropriate to share when the humor is removed? They offer the example of a recent Cisco hire who tweeted about having to weigh “a fatty paycheck against … hating the work.” It may have been intended as a laugh, but it essentially said that the author disliked the potential new employer. The joke failed and the offer was rescinded.

Consider the pain and distance. Is it “too soon” to make a crack about a troubling recent event? Are you, the attempted jokester, not close enough to the issue to truly share the pain you’re trying to laugh about?

Read the room. Are people in the mood for a laugh? Are there cultural differences, status differences or other reasons your audience might feel awkward about fielding a joke? The goal of office humor isn’t to get a laugh; it’s to make everyone in the room feel lighter and more at ease.


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