Laughing all the way to the boardroom

Can having a joke in the boardroom help to stimulate ideas? Kath Walters considers the pros and cons of leadership and humour at a director level.

Sitting in a meeting recently, I was struck by the number of gags that sent our assembly into peals of laughter. These folks are serious about their work, but that didn’t stop them having a laugh.
Admittedly, I was sensitised to the topic of leadership and humour. I am reading a new book, Power Play , by the business storytelling expert, Yamini Naidu, who devotes a chapter to the power of leading with humour.

I noticed that the chief executive, who was in the meeting, was unfazed by the laughter around him, and cracked a joke or two himself. The mood didn’t diminish his authority; instead it kept the energy high and ideas flowing.

The board’s role is one of influence, and Naidu argues that humour is one of the most powerful tools of influence.

We are charmed and disarmed by humour – making us open to new ideas – she writes. And there is a business case for bringing humour into the workplace, according to a 2014 article in Harvard Business Review by senior editor Alison Beard :

“The workplace needs laughter. According to research from institutions as serious as Wharton, MIT, and London Business School, every chuckle or guffaw brings with it a host of business benefits. Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and wellbeing, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.”

On that basis, we can believe that CEOs might rely on humour to increase their influence. But is the boardroom any place to chuckle? Given the number of presentations and amount of data that boards grind through, a little humour might help. As Naidu writes: “Speaker, consultant, trainer, author and storyteller, Lori L Silverman was inspired to call her book Wake Me Up When The Data Is Over because that was the lament executives would mutter when asked to sit through yet another meeting or presentation.”

I’m all in favour, but here is a word of warning for women. Although jokes will break the ice if you are a bloke, when women tell jokes in the boardroom, they fall flat, according to research published in The Guardian in 2012 (I hope that has changed).

A linguistics expert, Dr Judith Baxter, spent 18 months studying the speech patterns of men and women at meetings in seven companies. Nearly everyone (90 per cent) thought the lads’ off-the-cuff witticisms were amusing, and mostly laughed or at least reacted positively. Not so for a self-deprecating quip by a woman director, whose humour most directors (80 per cent) received in complete silence.

The point is that humour is a risk. Naidu confesses it was five years before she dared to make a joke about her Indian heritage. “I was fearful it may be offensive,” she writes. In fact, she finds her joke puts her audience at ease.

But Naidu and others think we can all learn to be funny at work. There’s even a “Humourversity” that sees humour, comedy and laughter as three separate disciplines.

Given the number of presentations and amount of data that boards grind through, a little humour might help.

Naidu offers a step-by-step guide to take directors and other leaders from humour amateurs to humour masters. She stresses that in business, it only takes a tweak to lighten up the mood in an appropriate way.

Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, the authors of The Humour Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny believe humour rests on “benign violation” – when we feel a bit unsettled, but are okay about it.

We also laugh when something goes wrong but not too wrong, according to the academic authors of Inside Jokes: Using Humour to Reverse-Engineer the Mind .

The case for a giggle at the board table is a good one. If you agree, Naidu recommends research (Google jokes about corporate governance, for example); adapt (turn jokes about lawyers into jokes about directors); and practise (write out your jokes and say them to yourself before you try them in public).

Here’s one I prepared earlier: The boss looked sternly across the table at his minions, and said: “We are going to continue having these meetings every day until I find out why no work is getting done.”