At the beginning of the famous movie Mary Poppins, we all thought that the perfect nanny came to save the kids from their parents. But then, we discovered that she came to save the estranged father – George Banks – from his job.
Thanks to humour, Mary Poppins manages to make Mr. Banks understand the sternness of his occupation in financial services and relations with his family, showing him a lighter way of enjoying life.
Humour also has benefits in business
Humour is about making things lighter, and in these times of tension it can be extremely powerful, especially in the workplace. We need to laugh together, which not only releases three of the four ‘feel-good’ hormones (endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin) but could even have a positive effect on the immune system. It affects our physiology and behaviours.
According to research from institutions as serious as Wharton, MIT, and the London Business School, every smile brings business benefits. Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and stimulates not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.
“In the pursuit of professionalism and serious business reputations, we have forgotten the value of humour.”
Humour is tricky and it is not simple to deploy. This might be one of the reasons why it has disappeared from the main competency frameworks of the corporate world. Twenty years ago, in fact, it was quite common to find “has a positive and constructive sense of humour; can laugh at him/herself and with others; is appropriately funny and can use humour to ease tension” – among valued leadership skills.
A sense of humour is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.Dwight D. Eisenhower
A study from Bell Leadership Institute confirms this, finding that humour gives leaders the edge.
Yet it seems that in the pursuit of professionalism and serious business reputations, we have forgotten the value of humour.
Ready to climb back up the ‘humour cliff’?
In their book, Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life (And how anyone can harness it. Even you.), two researchers from Stanford University reflect on the benefits of humour, reporting on what they call a humour cliff: they cite a 2013 Gallup study of 1.4 million people across 166 countries, according to which we start losing our sense of humour at age 23 and do not start smiling again until the age of 70 or 80.
As mentioned, it is not easy and bringing humour to work does not mean telling jokes. Having a sense of humour does not mean being funny. The goal is not to get a laugh, but it is to have people feeling better and relaxed.
Humour is also a way of being authentic!
Having, and showing, a sense of humour is a way to demonstrate authenticity and come across as more human. It is mainly about noticing the truth and observing others. It really means that we do not have to be egocentric, taking ourselves too seriously. Being human, being true, will unlock our sense of humour and others’ too.
What’s more, a survey conducted by Robert Half International showed that a staggering 91% of executives believe a sense of humour is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humour do a better job.
Humour styles for everyone – even CFOs
As every competence, humour requires us to work on ourselves.
“Our class on humour gets the same academic credit as financial accounting,” half-joke Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas. More seriously, according to them there are four different styles of humour which they offer to discover by taking their Humor Typology Quiz:
- Magnets keep things positive, warm, and inspiring, avoiding controversial while radiating charisma;
- Snipers are sarcastic and nuanced, unafraid to cross lines in pursuit of a laugh;
- Stand-Ups are natural entertainers, not scared of confusion, if it gets a laugh;
- Sweethearts are intense and honest, and their humour risks not to be always noticed.
It is important to understand our own style and to acquire higher self-awareness.
As mentioned, the ability to bring humour starts from us. It starts from a reflection on ourselves, on reading the context, and from understanding the types of relationships we have with people around us.
As Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas claim, humour is a secret weapon in business (and life). It just needs to be applied wisely: you don’t want to end up rapidly (and literally) laughing yourself to death, like one of the characters in Mary Poppins…