If you were browsing Netflix’s comedy section recently, you might have noticed the Ukrainian sitcom, Servant of the People. In it, an ordinary history teacher is unwittingly elected president of the Ukraine. In an unusual turn of events, the star of that series, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, was recently actually voted in as the next president of Ukraine. While there’s no doubt Zelensky is a popular comedian—does he really have what it takes to lead the country?
As part of my ongoing doctoral research, I surveyed 230 musical directors to find out what skills they think they need to lead successfully. Many of these leaders reported that telling a joke or a funny anecdote was important. Of course, we all enjoy a good giggle, but is cracking jokes really a useful way for leaders to spend their time? The research I have been exploring on humor and leadership suggests that we might be better off employing Michael McIntyre than Bill Gates. Here, are eight key ways that leaders can usefully use humor in their work:
1. Creating unity
Good leaders want a unified team behind them, if for no other reason than it drastically reduces the chances of a coup occurring (UK prime minister Theresa May can doubtless tell you more about that). Using humor has been shown to strengthen solidarity between colleagues and successful leaders can channel humor into team spirit, uniting their followers behind them.
2. Avoiding fatigue
Laughter might not always be the best medicine, but if leaders want to motivate flagging followers, a well-placed joke might do the trick. Using humor relieves boredom and raises energy levels. This is a handy trick for leaders and not just in formal workplaces. Leaders of exercise groups, for example, might use humor to motivate class members, enabling them to feel the burn for longer.
3. Softening criticism
Often, leaders have to deliver criticism without alienating their followers. An easy and effective way of managing this is to deliver this criticism in a lighthearted way. This is particularly useful if the leader wants to get along well with their followers. Speaking of which…
4. Balancing power and politeness
Leaders depend on their followers respecting them. They will also, however, have an easier time working with their team if they do so politely as opposed to dictating. Using humor is a great way of positioning yourself as leader of a group without rudely reminding everyone that you’re in charge and they have no choice but to follow you.
5. Diffusing tension
Even under the best of leaders, mistakes happen and occasionally tensions will run high. In this situation, as a leader you have two choices. Maintain a stiff upper lip and plough on in the face of revolt. Or make a joke, lighten the mood, and diffuse the tension in the room. Using comedy in this way smooths over friction and resets the mood.
6. Eliciting goodwill of followers
(Almost) everyone likes to be liked. Leaders, however, can really benefit from being popular. Research has shown not only that humor can encourage followers to think positively of someone, but that it can also suppress negative feelings towards them. You do, of course, have to be careful, as it’s possible to overcompensate—just think of David Brent’s relentless nonsense in TV series The Office.
7. Fostering creativity
Humor comes in many forms but a common type of joke involves unexpected combinations of incongruous ideas: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know” (Groucho Marx). One of the byproducts of combining odd ideas in this way is increasing creativity levels in groups, making teams more productive and innovative.
8. Benefiting health
We all feel better after a good laugh, but the benefits of a good giggle go further than just cheering us up. Humor expert John Morreall puts this best:
Physically and mentally, humor is the opposite of stress. Laughter lowers blood pressure, increases blood circulation, reduces muscle tension and pain, and boosts the immune system.
So what does this mean for aspiring leaders? Well, comic timing isn’t going to turn a terrible leader into a hotshot CEO, but it turns out that if they use humor carefully, leaders can turn laughs into votes or giggles into team spirit.
Perhaps Volodymyr Zelensky isn’t really unprepared for his new job at all. David Brent probably had the right idea all along: “When people say to me: would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss? My answer’s always the same—to me, they’re not mutually exclusive.”