A recent Stanford Business School Study delved into a seemingly non-intuitive case study — “Humor at scale” — at McKinsey & Company.
What were their learnings?
During the pandemic, just as companies across the world were trying to find different ways to motivate employees, so did the consulting firm. One of their employees created a comedy set based on the lived experiences of the people working in the company.When that was aired, he got quite a few laughs. Not just that, the initiative took off. From Zoom comedy sessions to face-to-face comedy meets and from a regional reach to the global stage of the company, his insightful humour found an audience. And the company took it seriously. Today, it is trying to look at humour as part of their global culture.
Is this the experience of a single company or can there be larger lessons for senior leaders and for their teams?
Be it Dilbert, the evergreen cartoon series on office culture, or the sitcom ‘Office’ or memes on social media or the viral skits by talented comedians such as Aiyyo Shraddha, the workplace lends itself to many hilarious moments.
The emerging world of digital technology — with new tools that many pretend to understand but in reality may not always know everything about — can be fodder for humour.
Beyond individuals, there have always been companies that have adopted humour as a brand tone — from Amul to Fevicol.
We recognise the moments. We understand the characters. We see ourselves in the characters. And we laugh.
But, at the same time, fun is not considered synonymous with senior leadership styles. Or can it be?
From boardroom to bored-room: the case for a laugh
Leadership, and especially executive leadership, is a hard job. We have to navigate multiple decisions, convince stakeholders and motivate teams. All in a day’s work.
Of course, there are funny moments within these. If a leader can bring out some of these funny moments, it can help in various ways.
Here are a few examples:
A senior leader who was having to hire a lot of people for his team and spending a humongous amount of his workday doing so, while dealing with last-minute candidate rejections and more, made a smart word play and called it his “higher” (hire) purpose in life.
Leaders in a data science company who wanted to demystify seemingly difficult terms on data science created a data love poem during Valentine’s Day bringing out multiple statistical terms in a funny and unexpected way.
Humour helps build a more relatable persona of the leader. A leader who can laugh at herself/himself can also help bring more open communication within the team. In some cases, it can become the unique personal brand for the leader, extending far beyond the role.
It also helps people bond better when they share laughter, and that makes for more engaged teams.
But, it’s not always that easy.
Humour can also hurt, especially if it becomes derogatory and non-inclusive. Leaders need to keep a watch out for that.
Self-deprecating humour or humour with word play or based on light-hearted office situations are safer bets. Some of the spaces to share these could be at offsites, training sessions, team huddles and such events.
But, when there are really difficult moments, humour may not always help. So humour has to be contextual, relevant and real for it to connect. It should not come across as flippant or inauthentic.
On that note, let’s hope we find more leaders nurturing their funny bones as part of their leadership skills.