Humour in leadership: laughter in challenging times 

When used correctly, humour can be an effective leadership tool

Humour is a quality that enhances nearly every aspect of life

While seemingly ubiquitous, it’s like a talent—not everyone can master it. For speakers who can weave authentic, spontaneous humour into their presentations, the rewards include higher ratings and more invitations to speak. Similarly, leaders who don’t take themselves too seriously and can inject humour into difficult meetings often gain popularity. However, the effective use of humour in the workplace is nuanced, hinging on the ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘where’. During the initial months of the Covid-19 lockdown, amidst the existential dread and day-to-day chaos, humour online spiked sharply. As individuals grappled with health fears, job security, and remote schooling, humour acted as a communal coping mechanism.

The age-old saying that there’s a thin line between comedy and tragedy never felt more apt.

Psychologically, humour is a potent cathartic force, enabling us to confront the absurdity of our expectations versus reality. It equips us to handle situations beyond our control, often illuminating a path out of the gloom toward optimism. It is, without doubt, a coping mechanism, a constructive way to face adversity. It makes us think the unthinkable, say the unsayable. 

A versatile tool

Laughter, the joyous offspring of humour, exerts tangible physical benefits. Research indicates laughter can modulate stress by reducing heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and cortisol levels, thus bolstering the immune system. Socially, laughter’s nearly infectious nature can transform an anxious environment into one of calm collective resilience. Reflecting on my teenage years, I recall the entire class succumbing to fits of laughter even as the headmistress scolded us—an oddly unifying experience.

In psychoanalytical terms, humour is a sophisticated defence mechanism that releases repressed tensions. Unlike coping mechanisms, defence mechanisms are unconscious. Interestingly, this attractive trait, particularly in leaders, may have roots in early childhood experiences as a method to diffuse household tensions. Humour also serves a social purpose; it is an age-old medium for critiquing authority indirectly. This tradition spans from Greek philosophy and Shakespeare’s plays to modern stand-up comedy and films. With the rise of autocratic leaders and right-wing politics, humour as a form of dissent is more important than ever, especially where direct criticism is stifled.

Incorporating humour in leadership strategies

Yet, humour can be a double-edged sword. Sarcasm, often perceived as veiled hostility, can reveal more about the speaker than the target. In contrast, self-deprecating humour is a sign of humility and inclusiveness, endearing leaders to their teams and fostering a welcoming atmosphere. For executives, leading Gen Z presents distinct challenges when compared to engaging with millennials (Generation Y). Gen Z’s attention span is notably brief, and they place a high value on developing a sense of community. Thus, traditional leadership strategies that emphasise solely responsibility may fall short. It’s essential to weave humour into our leadership approach as it plays a pivotal role in resonating with and unifying this younger generation.

Humour is an invaluable asset in leadership. When used judiciously, it can unify, inspire, and facilitate resilience. As we navigate an increasingly complex world, the ability to laugh — both at ourselves and with others — remains a timeless and universal currency of connection.

Featured image: Samsung UK / Unsplash

Hande Yaşargil, Executive Coach / Psychologist

Hande Yaşargil has been working as an international executive coach and leadership consultant for more than twenty years with an extensive experience in diverse geographies, cultures, and industries. She is also a Lead Coach at the Insead Business School for more than a decade.Hande is known for her many television and print interviews on business and leadership themes. She has graduate degrees and diplomas in Human Resources Management, Organisational Clinical Psychology, Family Businesses, and Coaching and Consulting from INSEAD and Harvard Business Schools. She taught Organisational Behaviour and Leadership courses as an adjunct professor for Istanbul Bilgi University and Koc University Executive MBA Programs.She is the founding chairperson of ‘Women on Board Association Turkey’ and a Board Member of ‘European Women on Boards’. As a passionate social responsibility leader, she regularly writes, speaks, and works on diversity and inclusion, women's leadership, and gender equality topics.She lives in London and Istanbul with her 15-year-old daughter.

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