This Post Co-authored with Gabor George Burt
In the beginning, there was humor and there was laughter. And it was good. But then, work became suffocatingly serious. Until now.
There’s an entire branch of social science that studies the psychological and physiological effects of humor and laughter on the brain and the immune system— it’s called gelotology. Discoveries in this field have demonstrated that humor, laughter and fun releases physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component of creativity, ideation, and problem solving. So to get the most out of innovation processes such as design thnking, truly creative leaders also need to master the social dynamics of… [wait for the punchline}…humor!
But in the world of leadership, humor has typically been typecast as a manifestation of individual personalities and thereby a spontaneous and non-replicable activity. Much less attention has been given to the idea that humor might be acquired, learned and nurtured.
We have witnessed that skilled leaders, those we call “Stand-Up Strategists”, understand the utility of humor to boost innovation. In the words of IDEO founder Dave Kelly: “If you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee they’re not likely to invent anything.”
Of course, humor can be highly subjective and what one person finds hilarious another person may not – so knowing your audience is paramount. It is therefore not surprising that business leaders who score high in the effective use of humor as a tool to boost innovtion also tend to score high in emotional intelligence.
Ceative leaders also have an intuitive appreciation of the four humor styles, and understand how these styles can be nurtured – or sometimes curtailed – in others. The first three styles generally generate positive emotions, while the fourth is more typically associated with negative emotions and therefore has the most limited application with regard to enabling perceptual flexibility:
- Sense of Fun involves a leader projecting an energetic, positive, playful vibe, and having a generally humorous outlook. It also involves the ability to appreciate the humor and playfulness of others.
- Self-deprecating humor is the act of a leader to laugh at him/herself through self-belittlement, excessive modesty or downplaying own achievements. The purpose is to reduce power-distance.
- Social humor is about boosting human interaction, and is used by a leader to enhance relationships. It typically involves jokes or stories shared as a tool to reduce interpersonal tension, increase sociability and promote openness.
- Strong humor most often entails sarcasm or cynicism and is used by a leader as put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, as a signal of dominance or to encourage conformity to group behavioral norms.
With his Groucho Marx moustache and quirky personality, IDEO’s Kelly is renowned for his sense of fun. Any visitor to an IDEO office immediately appreciates the importance of levity in the organization’s culture – indeed, having a sense of humor is a key criterion for recruitment into the firm.
Senior leaders – including Kelly himself – are sometimes self-deprecating, a cultural behaviour that reduces hierarchy and power-distance and ensure that ideas come from all ranks. But while self-deprecating humor can reduce social distance and make leaders seem more collaborative, participative and open to their employees, leaders shouldn’t over do it. Studies have shown that humorous self-criticism works much less well as a tool to engage with peers and superiors, and can even reduce one’s credibility with subordinates – if used excessively.
Social humor is practiced as part of the IDEO design thinking process that “encourages wild ideas” to take root. Even the most absurd perspectives are embraced, and people are encouraged to “defer judgement”. Team members openly make fun of failures related to the ideation process in a way that nurtures their collective, creative input.
Positive humor can also be utilized to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines – not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose. IDEO embraces the understanding that individuals with a high sense of humor tend to experience less stress than individuals with a low sense of humor, even in situations where both face similar challenges. So Project Leaders are identified not on a basis of seniority, but for their track record of orchestrating positive social interactions between people – of which humor is a critical component.
The fun and humor-filled work culture at companies such as IDEO are well known, but efforts can start at the team or departmental level in any organization – even those not renowned for having fun-embracing corporate cultures. Lilli Marlen Christ is an energetic development manager who works for German automotive firm Daimler AG in China, and opens her weekly team meetings with a joke or a riddle. She has found it a useful approach for reducing hierarchy, boosting openness and increasing divergent thinking.
When it comes to boosting innovation the overwhelming focus should be on styles of humour that generate positive emotions. Just as there are rules for the design-thinking process at IDEO, there are unspoken rules about the humor that is acceptable – cyncism, ridicule, sexist and racist humor are considered completely inappropriate. Inappropriate humor can stifle people’s creative confidence in any organization – not to mention contributing to reduced morale, absenteeism, the elevation of dysfunctional internal competition, and even company-level reputational damage.
But from a gelotological point of view, innovation is one of the few areas of business in which strong humor such as sarcasm can potentially pay dividends – so long as it’s practice is limited to environments in which people already know, trust and like each other. Research has shown that receiving sarcastic comments and other forms of strong humor from trusted co-workers can stimulate creativity without spurring conflict.
Pixar Animation Studios understands the power of such strong peer feedback. It has created what it calls its ‘Brain Trust’, consisting of a group of highly accomplished directors. When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group and show the current version of a movie in progress. This is followed by a fiery discussion that can last up to two hours, unlocking provocative suggestions and constructive criticism. The sessions are frequently punctuated by laughter, but nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another – but leadership still actively moderates to ensure that no red-lines are crossed. In these interactions, strong humor is never used as a put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, or as a signal of dominance.
Discoveries in the field of gelotology also explain why companies such as IDEO, Google and Lego are investing in creating playful and fun work spaces. IDEO offices are designed to encourage fun and freedom of expression, with employees ofen designing their own work-spaces. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Inc. has considered taking merriment at his car plants to a new level, with an idea to install a fully functioning roller coaster to shuttle employees around the Tesla factory in Fremont.
Today, we stand at the precipice of a new era. Future-shaping business leaders are re-discovering the power of humor as a vital driver of organizational success. “Stand-Up Strategists” are leaders who understand the utility of humor to boost creativity and innovation. The joke is on those who fail to seize the power of humor in guiding their organization’s ongoing relevance.
May the farce be with you.
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Catmul, E. (2008) How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Harvard Business Review, September, Vol. 86 Issue 9, p64‐72.
Huang, Li, F. Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky (2015). The Highest Form of Intelligence: Sarcasm Increases Creativity for Both Exressers and Recipients. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 131 (November), 162–177.
Zhang, G. (2014). Office Humor, London Business School Review (Online Edition), 4 February. Available at: https://www.london.edu/faculty-and-research/lbsr/office-humor#.WeXmkROCzJx [Accessed: 10 December 2017]