BLG Leadership Insights

Four Rules for Leading with Humor

As Joe Biden has occasion to show us, humor can be a double-edged sword. And, even more recently, Obama has used humor to achieve varying degrees of success. Leaders must be careful when and how they use it. While you may think that humor endears you, it might have the opposite effect.  While you think that humor draws people to you, it may be a stink that keeps them miles away.  Humor is a subtle tool that can often turn on you.

1. Be Self-Effacing but not Self-Deprecating

Leaders must generally try to avoid self-deprecation in the office. By poking fun at yourself you leave room for others to do so and the projects you are working on. It’s one thing to jokingly admit your guilty food pleasures but it’s another thing completely to jest about how you always do your best work when there’s a deadline or how you despise meetings. Even though people will immediately relate to you and laugh–they will be able to use it against you at a later date.

Self-effacement is the best way for leaders to make jokes about themselves without the high costs of self-deprecation. With self-effacement you can casually poke-fun at yourself and create a friendly atmosphere where no one feels threatened by your presence or, even worse, bored with your company. Don’t try too hard to relate with people by exposing all of your flaws, dislikes, and weaknesses at once.

2. Be Reflective but not Reflexive

Simply put, before you tell a joke, think.  First rule: assume you’re not funny and assume no one is going to get your joke.  Your immediate reaction should be not to tell it.  Telling the joke or using humor should be the exception not the rule.

Wait. Think about your joke before you say them. What you find funny others might find offensive.  Remember, not everyone has the same sense of humor and didn’t watch the same comedy special you did last night. Don’t make the mistake of assuming people will get your humor. Smart leaders know that humor can never be taken back.  Make a bad joke, and you can spend forever saying you didn’t mean it.  They will analyze it, psychoanalyze it, make attributions, and someplace think that the joke reveals something inside of you.  When making a joke, make sure to be reflective, not reflexive.

3. Be Yourself but not Popular

Often in our attempts to be popular, we sometimes to be someone we’re not.  You can’t be someone you’re not, so don’t try it.  Don’t try to use humor to fit in where you can’t.  I’m always taken by the leader who makes jokes about the hardship of the times and the struggle of the days, when in fact, he or she doesn’t realize that their hardship is not someone else’s hardship, and their situation is not someone else’s situation. Think of the politician who is driven in a limo to the local diner during the election and makes some jokes about the hamburger, when everyone knows she hasn’t had anything but shrimp and tofu for the last ten years.  Be yourself and you’ll be real.

4. Know the Context but not be Overwhelmed by it

In all situations, there is a sliver of a joke.  First and foremost, understand the situation. Telling a joke at a funeral might be funny, but it’s still a funeral.

If the situation at you office is perilous and downsizing is on the horizon some humor can be helpful–it lightens the mood, it creates camaraderie, and it gets people’s mind off the bigger, bleaker, picture. However, gallows-meets-recession-humor needs to be applied wisely and with decorum. It’s one thing to quickly riff on a superiors nonsensical command with your team but it’s another matter completely when you begin to comically wonder out-loud as to what your employees will do job-wise in a few months. Again, if you don’t think your joke will fly–smother it and go back to your blueprints.