Use Humor to Be More Successful

🚀 However, it is risky and can backfire - Issue #141

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I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” — Audrey Hepburn

We’ve all read that laughing is good for your health. It lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, triggers endorphins, improves your immune system, and more. But who knew how good it could be for your career too?

There are three areas where you can apply humor to impact your career positively:

  1. Improving your public speaking

  2. Connecting with colleagues in the workplace

  3. Enhancing your leadership capabilities


Public speaking

I know you are probably tired of hearing me extol the virtues of public speaking. But I just can’t stop.

Can’t stop won’t stop. I’ll keep talking about it until I see all of you on stage one day.

Public speaking is excellent for your career development, and humor is a great tool to use in your speaking techniques judiciously. Humor makes you more memorable, aids in storytelling, and helps you convey challenging messages.

Consider one of the most popular TED Talks of all time by Sir Ken Robinson. He sprinkles humor throughout his talk, and the audience laughs almost every minute. He even opens with a self-deprecating comment to break the ice.

There is an art to using humor in your talks. The usual advice of “open with a joke” has derailed many a speaker. I don’t find an obvious joke to be very compelling.

Self-deprecating comments, the use of irony, surprising twists in stories, building and breaking tension (more on this later), and masterful comedic exaggeration are much more powerful techniques.

However, they do require extensive planning and lots of practice for excellent timing and delivery, which I recommend for all of your talks anyway. Of course, it is easier to blend much more casual humor into your everyday work experiences.


The workplace

A Robert Half International survey found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is vital for career advancement. A surprising 84% believe that people who have a good sense of humor are better at their job.

I don’t think all of my past bosses believed that, by the way.

In another survey, CFOs (some of the world’s most humorous people) were asked, “How important is an employee’s sense of humor in him or her fitting into your company’s corporate culture?” Their responses indicated that 78% of them found it to be important:

  • 22% saw humor as very important

  • 56% thought it was somewhat important

  • Only 22% said a sense of humor was not important

So, why does humor have this impact in the workplace? It might be due to an increase in social bonding.

Laughter induces the release of oxytocin and endorphins and helps “undo” prior negative emotions (e.g., anger). It stimulates new positive emotions that strengthen bonds between coworkers.

Humor can also make you more persuasive, especially when irony is used (more on this in the final section of the article). This can come in handy when interviewing, negotiating an offer, or asking for a raise or promotion.

According to research at The Wharton School, the successful use of humor signals your confidence and competence, which increases your status at work. Research has also found that humor:

  • Can build rapport and result in increased likability

  • May make people want to listen more

  • Relaxes them, thus making them more receptive to your message

  • Makes the listener feel good (those endorphins again)

  • Makes your message more memorable

  • May distract the person from thinking about counter-arguments

However, you had better be really good at striking the right balance with your humor.

Humor is risky. Humor can signal competence and confidence and increase our status. But sometimes humor can fail because it’s inappropriate, because it’s just not very funny or because we overdo it. In those cases, we signal low competence and that harms our status. And in some cases we’ve seen people get fired because of it.” — Maurice Schweitzer


Leadership development

Leaders who use humor as part of their management style are perceived as more effective. Their employees report greater satisfaction at work, and retention is improved on teams where fun has a place.

You can leverage humor to improve the performance of your teams. When used effectively and positively (i.e., and not used to put people down), humor can put people at ease, relieve stress, boost morale, and increase productivity.

55% of employees said that they would accept less pay to have more fun at work. This data is from Humor in the Workplace: Anecdotal Evidence Suggests Connection to Employee Performance by Lauren Breeze, Adrienne Dawson, and Susanna Khazhinsky. Perspectives in Business, St. Edwards University, 2004.

However, I strongly discourage replacing a percentage of your employees’ salaries with a big bucket of weekly jokes.

Don’t try it. Really.

Of course, your job as a leader isn’t to be the office clown. You do need to command respect, but you don’t need to elicit fearHumane leaders are more effective than ruthless ones.

Humor can be one tool in your toolbox that makes you more human, approachable, and a good boss. Contrary to the popular wisdom that nice guys finish last, the research does show that nice bosses get better overall results than tough bosses.


How can you be funny?

Thankfully, the good news is that you don’t have to be a clown. This is a tremendous relief for me, in particular, since I can’t stand to be in the same room as a clown (shudder).

Dr. Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, has an interesting explanation of why we find things humorous. He calls it the “Benign Violation Theory.”

He proposes that humor only occurs when all three of these conditions are satisfied:

  1. You consider a situation to be a violation (e.g., a threat to cultural or social norms, your emotional or psychological wellbeing, or your physical safety).

  2. Yet, you somehow also perceive that the situation is benign (i.e., you’re not at risk).

  3. Finally, most importantly, both perceptions occur simultaneously.

It is a delicate balance of being right in the middle of feeling simultaneously threatened, yet somehow safe (i.e., a benign violation). It explains why irony can be useful in both humor and persuasion.

This partly explains why babies laugh (e.g., when being tickled). The ambiguity of a safe caregiver who is suddenly doing something that is interpreted as threatening (e.g., the surprise of the sudden peekaboo) creates stress that is released through an explosion of laughter.

A great deal of practice is required for you to find this exact balance, especially if you want to use humor in a work setting. Professional comedians rehearse for hours per minute of their routines.

But, how can you create a benign violation in a professional setting? One of the easiest ways to get a laugh as a leader is to use self-deprecating humor.

There is an inherent tension between respect for the leader — and let’s be honest, sometimes fear — and the benign aspect that it is the leader making a joke at his or her own expense.

You can also carefully tap into a tragedy to create a benign violation. You may have heard a comedian tell a joke about a recent terrible event and then say, “Too soon?

However, tension can be used if a tragedy isn’t too severe, and enough time has passed since it occurred to take off the edge.

In a work setting, this could be:

  • Product flops (e.g., “So, I was checking my calendar on my Newton today.”)

  • Bad business decisions (e.g., “I put all of my money in Pets.com, but at least I still have the cool hand puppet.”)

  • Leadership missteps (e.g., “I was recently in a leadership workshop taught by Adam Neumann.)

Too soon?


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🎧 Did you listen to last week’s career tips?

In my most recent audio digest, I covered:

  • Why you should audit how you spend your time

  • The power of tiny gains

  • Learning from the past and those who came before us

  • How to escalate appropriately at work

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What I’ve been reading and writing:

  • In Find a Realistic Career Hero, I wrote about the fascination we seem to have with fabulously successful people, like Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffett. An endless stream of articles tells us how to eat like they do, follow their morning rituals, and copy their habits. However, the first critical flaw in only studying these successes is survivorship bias. The more valuable lessons we need to learn from the “failures” rarely rise into view because we hardly ever hear about them.

  • In Don’t Quit Your Job Before Asking Yourself These Questions, Priscilla Claman explains that most people make the big mistake of waiting until they feel they must leave their job, which puts you at a disadvantage. In desperation, you may choose what she calls an “exit job,” rather than taking the time to make the right next step for your career. She shares three questions that you should regularly ask yourself to make sure you are still in the best job for your future career growth.

  • If you’d like to read more about the humor research I mentioned, check out Using Humor in the Office: When It Works, When It Backfires. They use the positive example of Dick Costolo sending out a humorous tweet the evening before he joined Twitter as the chief operating officer. It read, “First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Step one, undermine CEO, consolidate power.” It seemed to work. A year later, he became the CEO of Twitter.


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