What is humor?
There are various kinds of humor. You can joke about a particular event or person, making fun of their mannerisms and character (as in the impersonation of politicians and personalities). You can joke about society as a whole, as Voltaire did with his social irony.
In interpersonal relationships, humor is at once communication and meta-communication: for example, when telling a joke, the tone of voice and body language are used to switch on the joking mindset in the listener: these are communication aspects that go beyond the mere transmission of a message and expand the persuasion capacity of that message.
When used skillfully in the workplace, they help us to involve people emotionally, leading them to consider what we have to say more carefully.
On the other hand, humor can also be used to put someone in a corner, trapping them in what psychologists refer to as communication paradox.
This is famously illustrated by the Freud and the Gestapo episode, in which the father of psychoanalysis was able to outwit high Nazi officials through the use of sarcasm.
In short, the officials told Freud that they would agree to provide him with a visa out of Austria on condition that he sign a document stating that Nazi authorities had treated him with all due respect. Their goal was to use the scientist’s international fame as a sort of propaganda. This posed quite a dilemma: he wanted to leave but had no intention of endorsing Nazi massacres in any way. He came up with a brilliant way out through a paradox, which was to ask for their permission to add to the statement the following sentence “I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone”. How could they turn down this additional commendation?
How can humor help in the exercise of leadership?
- As explained by psychoanalyst Manfred Kets de Vries in his book Leaders, fools and impostors, humor is a weapon against arrogance, a common consequence of ill-conceived leadership. De Vries talks about a style of humor similar to that of the court fool of the past, the only person who was entitled to ridicule the king in his jokes, which was a way of making him more human and closer to the people. This is the same mechanism that comedians like Maurizio Crozza use today, with great success among audiences and critics.
- Humor succeeds in controlling the potentially destructive features of leadership, it brings managers closer to their team, promoting a relaxed, collaborative working atmosphere.
- A director using self-irony to play down his status and promote a more equal relationship with his team members is a typical form of corporate humor. Through humor, we perceive the relativity of our Ego: as Luigi Pirandello wrote in his paper on “Humor”, a human being has multiple personalities, influenced by status, belief systems and cultural background. For example, if a manager identifies with an austere, serious and arrogant personality, it may just be because he perceives that to be his role. But it can become a cage in which even the manager feels uncomfortable. Allow yourself to have multiple personalities, including a light-hearted, cheeky and joking one.
- A sort of king/fool relationship is also indispensable in an organization, someone whose vision will sometimes appear to be in clear contrast with the manager’s and who will use positive humor to convey a different truth. As the French leader Bernard Tapie said:
“If the people around you can’t tell you in the face what they think, you are not a real leader”.
Benefits of humor in the workplace
Romero and Cruthirds, summarize the benefits of humor in the workplace as follows:
- It strengthens team cohesiveness, especially under stress
- It improves listening skills and the ability to understand messages. Even the spiritual teacher Yogi Bhajan believed that through humor we can open someone’s heart and uplift each other.
- The use of a particular type of humor, defined as aggressive, makes it possible to criticize someone’s work without coming across as too unpleasant.
- It reduces stress and conflicts: laughing about a particularly stressful situation, helps you to feel less afraid of it.
- During brainstorming sessions, people with a strong sense of humor contribute to create a comfortable atmosphere and enhance creativity in the whole group.
In short, if you want to work better, feel good with your colleagues, become more effective and guide your group successfully, don’t take yourself too seriously!
Alessia Tanzi – Giacomo Ciampoli