Don’t Laugh. Humor Can Boost the Bottom Line

Leaders don’t need to be comedians, just create an environment where people feel relaxed, says emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Abbiba was a team leader at a startup for online tutoring. When she told her team that they had failed to get a large grant, Abbiba could feel the disappointment in the room. Much of the team had worked overtime on the grant. But Abbiba knew their efforts weren’t in vain. She saw an opportunity to use the feedback they’d received about why the grant was turned down, improve the proposal, and approach other organizations whose vision more closely matched their own. 

Abbiba shared this more positive view with her team. And instead of immediately diving into the new grant proposals, she invited them out for a drink to celebrate a “new beginning” for their team. This chance to take a step back from a stressful project and enjoy each other’s company allowed the team to return to work the next day with new energy and a more positive outlook. They were more collaborative, even inspired, to find creative solutions.

That fits with findings from the Yale School of Management: If a team leader exhibits a positive mood, then team collaboration, creativity, and performance goes up. The opposite is also true; if the leader radiates negativity those metrics plummet.

There’s also some telling data from a study of high-level executives and their direct reports done at Boston University’s business school. Analysis of these interactions revealed that the better the executive’s rating as a leader, the more laughter there was during their interactions. It’s not that the executives were telling jokes – just that people felt good and relaxed with them.

It’s no surprise–our emotions are contagious and laughter is the most contagious of all. Our brains have neurons dedicated to detecting a smile or laugh and making us smile and laugh in return. It’s instantaneous, automatic, and unconscious.

So, when people have the chance to laugh and joke together, the bottom line benefits. Laughter has been shown to relieve stress and boredom, boost engagement and well-being, and spur not only creativity and collaboration, but also analytic precision and productivity. Good humor signals an emotionally intelligent workplace.

A leader’s strengths in emotional self-awareness, positive outlook, and teamwork play crucial roles in unleashing humor and fun at work. Emotional self-awareness lets us more accurately assess our strengths and limits and makes it easier to laugh at our foibles. People who use self-deprecating humor typically have strengths in emotional self-awareness.

The positive outlook competency can help a leader transform a setback into an opportunity for hope and growth. And a positive outlook activates brain circuits that remind us of how good we will feel when we reach a goal. This brain circuitry runs on dopamine, which energizes us, increases our focus, and can stimulate creativity through flexible thinking and collaboration. So, sharing a laugh with our team makes it easier to envision and work toward our goals together.

The teamwork competency contributes to a positive, fun workplace. Scientists theorize that the brain cells that make us laugh and smile when we see someone else do so was hardwired into our brains because smiles and laughter help cement alliances, helping our species survive. This holds true in the modern-day workplace: Teams that laugh together benefit from increased engagement, commitment, and productivity. 

The type of humor matters; aggressive or dirty jokes can backfire. Leaders serve as role models, setting group norms by example. With a bit of emotional intelligence humor and fun at work can have of benefits for the bottom line.


Click here to learn about Daniel Goleman’s facilitated online courses.