Stand-Up Strategy

Jamie Anderson & Gabor George Burt

In our interactions with leaders of the world’s most successful and innovative companies we have been struck by a recurring phenomenon – not only are these leaders intelligent, and forward-thinking, many of them are also very funny. Not only are they able to deliver a flawless punchline at a cocktail reception – they are also able to leverage humor as a strategic tool to achieve four important organizational outcomes.  Here is how you can do the same.

First, you can use humor to foster a strong sense of corporate community. Psychologists and social scientists have shown that people who laugh together have deeper feelings of empathy and bonding. So, draw on jokes, funny anecdotes and stories to get your employees to laugh together.

We recall a joke told by a regional CEO in a European-based telecom equipment company to open an employee meeting: CEO: “Knock, knock.” Audience: “Who’s there?” CEO: “China!” The firm had recently lost important contracts to Chinese competitors, so everybody in the room immediately understood the punch line. The CEO went on to speak about the need for greater agility, alignment and collaboration.

Second, you can apply humor to help maintain composure. Quite simply, individuals with a high sense of humor experience less stress than individuals without, even in situations where both face similar challenges.  Therefore, you should aim to maintain a sense of humor first and foremost for your own wellbeing. Mervyn Eyre, who heads Infrastructure Services for Fujitsu Americas from Jamaica, notes: “While leadership is a serious responsibility, I do think we take ourselves too seriously at times. I have no hesitation to LOL when I find stories or situations funny at work, and occasionally even ROFLMAO.” For the un-initiated, the latter acronym stands for Rolling-On-the-Floor-Laughing-My-Ass-Off.

Sarah Lahav, CEO of SysAid Technologies in Israel offers this advice: “Work hard, go above and beyond your job description if you want to make a difference, and ensure you have a sense of humor. The last one is particularly important, because if you can’t laugh at yourself when someone is making inappropriate jokes or when you make a mistake, then life is going to be toughNever ever forget your sense of humor.”

In group situations, you can utilize humor to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines or crises. Jokes and funny stories are best leveraged in these situations, not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose.  Terry Davis , former CEO of Coca Cola Amatil Australia, was known for his sense of humor. At one gathering he blew-up a competitor’s vending machine, and at another he took to the stage at a time when his sales managers were falling behind budget. He asked everyone to stand, reach under their seat, and find what was there. Every seat had a $5 note or $2 coin taped underneath. He then commented: “You see, all you have to do is get off your arses and you will find revenue.”

Thirdly, in order to navigate a VUCA world, you must excel at piloting ongoing organizational change and metamorphosis. Using humor can boost message retention among your employees, enable positive emotions and re-enforce core company values. Jack Ma, Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, is a renowned storyteller. His rags to riches story is inspiring, because he overcame so many obstacles before achieving success.  Here is the humorous, disarming way he tells it:

“I had a lot of failures…I failed a key primary school test two times, and I failed three times for middle schools. I even failed my university exams two times… I applied for thirty jobs, got rejected…When KFC came to China, came to my city, 24 people went for the job – 23 people were accepted, I was the only guy who got rejected.”

 Ma shares his funny stories of rejection and resilience to re-enforce Alibaba’s core organizational values of entrepreneurialism, risk-taking and persistence. Similarly, you should infuse funny elements into your own strategic storytelling.

The fourth organizational outcome humor enables you to achieve is perhaps the most important: creativity. Laughter and fun release physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component for ideation and problem solving. Future-shaping leaders recognize the impact of humor to generate creative ideas from all ranks, spur diverse perspectives and foster innovation. In the words of IDEO founder and CEO 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.”

The growing embrace of humor among leaders as engine of creativity is substantiated by the global proliferation of corporate April Fools mischief. Every year, the first of April brings new heights in the number and elaborateness of institutionalized pranking around the world, fully endorsed and even personally fronted by business leaders. You should get your organization to join the fun. It will send the strong, internal message that creativity is a valued resource.

Of course, humor can be subjective – what one person finds hilarious another may not. So, knowing your audience is paramount. Leaders who score high in the effective use of humor also tend to score high in emotional intelligence. The global nature of business today means that you must also be adept at adjusting your style of humor as you cross societal boundaries – an aspect of what has become known as cultural intelligence. Any ‘outsider’ who has worked in Nigeria or Russia soon comes to understand that while locals frequently joke about corruption, foreigners should not.

Now throw the instantaneous and global reach of social media into the mix, and we might soon be talking about digital intelligence too. Using these new communication platforms, your humorous commentary, if used wisely, is only a screen tap away from reaching audiences inside and outside your organization. As a leader, you never before had access to this kind of mass intimacy, which is a natural podium for humorous expression.

It’s high time we jump to conclusions: Future-shaping business leaders are re-discovering humor as a vital driver of organizational success. Consequently, the joke is on you if you fail to seize its power in guiding your organization’s ongoing relevance.

May the farce be with you.

See Jamie’s TEDx Talk ‘The Stand-Up Strategists.’

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