Saturday, June 9, 2007

Humor and Leadership

A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done" Dwight D. Eisenhower*

Studies suggest that humor useful in facilitating communication in difficult situations, relieving stress, and in clarifying mutual understanding of difficult topics in work groups. Humor can be used to convey information, break down behavioral barriers, highlight key points, and identify where tension exists.

Humor facilitates communication in difficult situations, such as when a supervisor needs to provide negative or sanctioning feedback and when broaching taboo topics.

Humor can be used by managers to communicate corrective actions without offending or threatening. Humor can also be used as a non-threatening way for subordinates to push back up the chain of command without overstepping customary lines of authority. Humor allows you to discuss taboo topics, including expression of certain emotions, such as aggression, fear, and sadness. Humor allows you to maintain lines of communication in spite of conflict. Humor's ability to facilitate communication is likely one of its most powerful and potentially useful aspects.

Humor makes it possible to communicate in stressful situations because it simultaneously conveys both the message and information about how to interpret the message. Through smiling, an exaggerated tone of voice, etc. humor tells us that the normal rules of behavior are temporarily suspended. Humor lets both the speaker and listener off the hook should conflict arise on the subject. For example, if you first establish, by smiles and voice tone, that you are joking around, you may be able to communicate ideas that would be considered insulting under other circumstances without jeopardizing the relationship. Humor provides the speaker the opportunity to deny that he meant anything by his comment, and it gives the listener the right to act as if nothing has been conveyed.

Humor usually puts people in a good mood, and people in a good mood tend to be more accepting and cooperative, reducing conflict and enabling deeper communication. Humor draws attention. Advertising executives consider humor an effective way to gain attention. Attention emphasizes the message and emphasizes the importance of related segments of the interaction.

Three important questions should be considered When using humor in difficult situations: Do the nonverbal signals clearly convey that the comment is not to be taken seriously? Will the humor leave listeners in a good mood? Is the humor calling attention to something valuable (e.g., the encouraging desired behavior, rather than emphasizing undesirable behavior)?
Humor can reduce stress or tension. Joking provides an energizing distraction for team members when the activity seems overly taxing.

Humor is an important emotion management tool to relieve tension and stress in interpersonal relationships. Many employers consider stress reduction to be the main benefit of humor in the workplace.

Humor allows group members to come to common understanding of our physical and social environment. It identifies situations as safer and less serious than they initially seem. People with a good sense of humor tend to suffer fewer negative outcomes when exposed to stress. Humor can also induce a positive mood, which alleviates stress-induced resistance, and it can draw attention away from the source of stress.

When using humor to reduce stress, remember that your objective may be to change the listener's appraisal of a situation as well as their emotional reaction to it. Is the content of the humor aimed at defining or redefining the situation as safe? Will the humor generate a positive rather than a negative mood? And will the humor draw attention away from the source of stress rather than toward it?

Humor can alert you to issues that others find stressful or problematic. Because humor gives both the speaker and listener the chance to deny that anything important was conveyed, leaders and listeners, should be aware of cases where humor has allowed a potentially contentious matter into a conversation. Your ability to "take a joke" opens an important back channel of communication through which your peers and subordinates may try to pass valuable feedback.

Because humor is often used to alleviate stress, its presence can serve as an important signal that the topic makes the speaker uncomfortable, or to identify issues related to interpersonal conflict. The presence of stress-related humor and laughter reflected the higher levels of stress and conflict in those interactions might be viewed as a warning flag of latent conflict.

Example: disarming humor:
How are you doing?
I have good days and.... better days!

I'm here to serve,


* I picked up this quote from an excellent address given to the students and parents of the Barrington High School [BHS] Class of 2007 by Dan Monaco, a teacher, at the BHS Friendship Service leading up to graduation.

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