Sense of humour. An underestimated leadership skill?

David Reyero

When we talk about the main traits of a good leader, the ones that usually come to mind are: strategic vision, business acumen, determination, humility, credibility, empathy, resilience, energy…

A sense of humour is unlikely to appear in this shortlist of skills, but it’s increasingly important in the business world.

Importance of the sense of humour in the business world

Humour makes it easier to get on with people, communicate more effectively, enjoy work more and understand people better. Humour is also a powerful springboard for innovation and creating a good atmosphere at work.

The highly acclaimed Stanford University runs an executive programme called “Humor: Serious Business” in which executives learn about the strategic use of humour at work, discover their own style, understand others’ style and learn how to incorporate it into their leadership.

Foremost consultancies such as Manfred Kets de Vries and Plácido Fajardo regard the three Hs of leadership (humour, humanity and humility) as complementary to traditional traits.

A sense of humour it’s increasingly important in the business world

Why is humour underestimated in the business world?

The sorry sidelining of humour goes back a long way. In The Republic, Plato said that humour distracted people from more important things, so serious people should not laugh.

Nowadays, 2500 years later, people with a sense of humour are often not taken seriously and regarded as frivolous, disrespectful and unable to analyse situations properly. So all too often, humour is seen as unsuitable in the workplace.

But evidence suggests quite the opposite. According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, for example, leaders with a well-developed sense of humour are 27% more admired and credible than the average and their teams are 15% more committed. These are both essential leadership traits: good reasons for looking at humour in the workplace in a completely different light.

Those who manage with a touch of humour do, in fact, have far greater impact, approachability and influence than those who are more serious and distant

My experience of working with senior CEOs is that those who manage with a touch of humour do, in fact, have far greater impact, approachability and influence than those who are more serious and distant.

In other words, a new attitude to humour is emerging in the workplace. A good example of this is the book Lidera con sentido del humor by Sergio de la Calle.

Sergio is an expert in human resources. Whilst working in a big multinational, he experienced the benefits of humour and generously shared them in this excellent book.

I’d like to mention a couple of the messages from this book. “New generations will be less accepting of excessively serious workplaces.” David M. Kelley, founder of the IDEO design company and professor at Stanford University, said in one forum: “If you join a company and see a bunch of serious looking guys, I can guarantee that they won’t invent anything”.

A sense of humour that starts with being able to laugh at ourselves and to use it intelligently, selectively and with a focus on goals

This sense of humour, as Juan Carlos Cubeiro explains so aptly, “is not about telling jokes or being funny but discovering people’s individual sense of humour, the best things to joke about at work, knowing how to tell memorable anecdotes and the mistakes to avoid.”

Today’s most foremost companies encourage humour on account of its benefits: motivation, commitment, learning, healthy habits, better personal relations, higher productivity, innovation from learning more from mistakes, and greater transparency and honesty from boosting trust between people.

A sense of humour that starts with being able to laugh at ourselves and to use it intelligently, selectively and with a focus on goals. 

“A person without a sense of humour is like a wagon without springs. It’s jolted by every pebble on the road,” said Henry Ward Beecher quite rightly.

Times have changed and I fully agree with Sergio de la Calle and his updated view of humour, “People fond of you today will make you laugh, not cry.”

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