Leadership

These Stanford experts say humor is the key to great leadership: 'We can do serious things without taking ourselves too seriously'

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When you think of a good leader, you probably think of a few common traits — like determination, humility and confidence.

But two Stanford experts say the key to great leadership also lies in another surprisingly simple quality: having a sense of humor.

"We can do serious things without taking ourselves too seriously. And in fact, often we can do them better and more fashionably," Naomi Bagdonas, a management lecturer at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, said in a TED talk earlier this year.

Bagdonas co-teaches a course at Stanford on the power of humor in leadership with behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker. The pair delivered the TED talk together in January, noting that leaders can often use humor to build stronger connections with their team. The approach also helps foster creativity and resilience among all involved, they said.

Their rationale: Laughter accelerates feelings of trust, closeness and comfort. When people share a laugh, their brains release certain hormones — endorphins and dopamine — that emulate the feeling of a runner's high, or a brief state of extreme joy and delight. This chemical reaction in your brain is what makes you feel bonded with others, according to Aaker and Bagdonas. 

Following this logic, leaders who share a laugh with their employees can foster stronger connections with them. Their relationships can go from being "transactional to human," the Stanford duo said.

"It floods our brains with the same hormones associated with love. And who doesn't want to feel more joy and love in our lives?" Aaker noted.

The pair cited a study from the academic journal Social Behavior and Personality, which found that leaders with any sense of humor are seen as 27% more admirable and motivating than those who don't joke around. Their employees are 15% more engaged and committed, and their teams are twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge, Aaker and Bagdonas wrote in an accompanying Harvard Business Review blog post.

Of course, not everyone finds humor easy to accomplish. Bad, forced jokes are cringe-inducing at best, and can arguably damage relationships at worst.

In their TED talk, Aaker and Bagdonas offered two tips for leaders who want to bring laughter into the workplace. The first, Aaker said: "Just notice what's true."

Instead of racking your brain for a funny one-liner, talk about honest things that have occurred in your life. You might, for example, mention how you've only been combing the front of your hair since you started working from home.

"The actual good news is that our lives are full of humor if we know how to look for it. Here's the secret. Don't look for what's funny. Just notice what's true," Aaker said. 

The second tip: "It's not about you." Or, in other words, be sensitive about how your jokes are perceived — and how others will feel when they hear them. That means never making comments that put your employees or other people down, and avoiding jokes that could feel too personal. 

"Don't ask, will this make me sound funny? Instead, ask how will this make other people feel, which also means never punching down," Aaker said.

If you keep these tips in mind, leading with a little humor can go a long way in the workplace, the duo said.

"Start small," Bagdonas said. "Choose to live on the precipice of a smile. When we do, we create teams, communities and families where joy and laughter come more easily laughing together." 

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