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Humor Is Smart for the Workplace

Ask my husband. He'll tell you that I can't tell a joke to save my life. It's true. I know this. That doesn't stop me from trying especially after a couple of glasses of wine.

More and more we are seeing leaders embrace humor as part of their story telling. The combination is powerful for attention and retention spans. According to neurohumorist Karyn Buxman, we are wired to laugh as a natural response to happiness and stress relief. Messages are more fully received and retained with a sprinkle of whimsy as well. Thankfully, you don't need to be a comedian to have a healthy dose of humor in your life.

I love people who are witty and smart without having to berate or offend someone else for the benefit of a laugh. This requires practice and awareness that not everyone possesses. Humor gone awry is every HR person's nightmare.

There is a story of a well-meaning executive who assigned a group of summer interns an ice breaker exercise in front of the whole company. As part of a brief introduction, they had to tell a joke. It was a disaster and we almost had to fire an intern (who had never had an office job before) and had no idea what defined appropriate humor.

For the rest of us who understand how to use humor as a tool to break tension in a meeting, to redirect an angry employee, to show compassion and levity in the right circumstance, I say kudos! Being human with each other requires skill and authenticity. Again, you do not need to tell jokes to be funny. Instead, you need to show vulnerability and the existence of a shared relationship.

If you don't know if you are funny or not, you're not. People will tell you when they find your attempts at humor amusing. Do not mistake the awkward pity-laugh as an excuse to carry on. This is especially important for the C Suite to take note of for everyone's benefit.

In a recent study by The Bell Leadership Institute, researchers found that the most effective leaders use humor to spark people’s enthusiasm, deliver an honest message in a good-natured way, boost productivity, put people at ease, bring teams together, and see the light side of a situation. Less effective leaders use humor in negative ways – to show off, cut people down with sarcasm, and overly distract people from the task at hand.

Levity can come in the form of facial expressions, acting out of character to make a point, self-effacing humor, and so on. A public speaking article points out that "The person who is not afraid to tease him or herself is the one who makes the greatest connection with the audience because everyone in the audience has embarrassed themselves or failed at something at one time or the other. If you use self-effacing humor, the audience knows that you, as the presenter, know how it feels to fail. That is a very powerful magnet."

Timing, balance, appropriateness to the situation and the ability to read the audience are all very important considerations. But this skill, like most others, may be learned. Watch and learn from comedians and public speakers who resonate with you.

If you are still unable to tell the joke, like me, then just add your laughter to the office sounds. We all do our part and that is mine. You're welcome.

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