Career Trends: “Humour at work is a critical leadership skill”

4 min read

Edition: March 16, 2022
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS


Humour is a critical leadership skill and one of the most under-leveraged assets in business. (Image Credit: Canva)
  • Q&A published by The Economic Times
  • Dr Jennifer Aaker, behavioural scientist, researcher, and teacher at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), in conversation with journalist Srijana Mitra Das

According to Dr Jennifer Aaker, teacher at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), “Humour at work is essential.” Speaking to Srijana Mitra Das, in a question-answer session, she discusses how this under-leveraged asset can unlock productivity.

“Laughter accelerates trust. Even reminiscing about moments of shared laughter makes individuals report being 23% more satisfied in their relationships.”

Dr Jennifer Aaker

Q. What is the core of your research?

A. Much of my work focuses on how humans experience meaning — what do we find really meaningful in life and how can we spend time in ways that optimise our well-being.

My research has found that although we all want a fulfilling life, we don’t always know how to accomplish this — humour is one way in.

Q. The world faces serious challenges like the pandemic, geopolitical conflict and climate change — can humour play an effective role in our work lives now?

A. The reality is, we can’t afford to be humourless, especially being in the midst of a mental health crisis. It is reported that rates of depression and social isolation have risen considerably.

Having a sense of humour has been linked to both mental and physical resilience.

One large-scale Norwegian study conducted over 15 years found that people with a sense of humour have a much better chance of survival if severe disease strikes them, also living five to eight years longer on average.

Research by Gallup shows that, in terms of work performance, one of the greatest drivers of employee performance is having a close friend at work.

Employees who work in high-trust environments are more likely to take risks for the benefit, have higher innovation levels, as well as achieve higher performance levels.

We need to think about what the higher purpose of our companies is — do your employees feel connected to their workplace, is it fun and are you creating relationships based on respect, liking and learning?

Humour helps us tackle these questions.

Q. Can humour help with business objectives?

A. Leaders with a sense of humour are seen as 27% more motivating — their teams are more than twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge. Humour also sells — adding a light-hearted line in a sales pitch can make customers willing to pay more.

Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, during meetings, would have team members banter with him on stage. Putting his sense of humour on display signalled humility and humanity — it reduced the enormous status barrier many felt between themselves and Costolo.

Humour isn’t just fun — it’s a critical leadership skill and one of the most under-leveraged assets in business.

Q. Your research finds most people stop laughing in the workplace — why?

A. We’ve all fallen off a humour cliff.

In a global study, over a million people were asked, ‘Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?’ For those who were 16, 18 or 20 years old, the answer was yes. Then, around 23, the answer becomes no. Things look up again but only around age 80.

For our co-authored book, ‘Humor, Seriously’, Naomi Bagdonas and I surveyed thousands of people — certain ‘humour myths’ emerged, including ‘serious business’ or thinking that humour has no place at work.

Q. Should workplace humour be regulated in order to not hurt or offend?

A. Yes. There are certain rules of thumb — firstly, it’s not centred around you, so don’t ask, ‘Will this make me sound funny?’ Instead ask, ‘How will this make other people feel?’

The goal of humour at work is:

  • First, to make everyone in the room feel lighter and more at ease.
  • Secondly, never make fun of someone of unequal status.
  • Third, check your distance — how close are you to what you’re making light of. For example, you may make a joke about your relative but not someone else’s.

It’s easy to believe that gravity and levity are at odds. But our research tells a different story.


Have you checked out yesterday’s blog yet?

Education & Career Trends: 4 Skills Marketing Students Should Learn


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the above mentioned article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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