No laughing matter: Why India Inc needs to recognise power of humour, levity

By: |
February 14, 2021 12:45 AM

A little bit of humour can go a long way in building better relations in the workplace too

A file photo of Richard Branson who is known for his sense of the dramatic (Image:Reuters)A file photo of Richard Branson who is known for his sense of the dramatic (Image:Reuters)

It is true that almost everyone loves humour and a relaxed environment is always welcome. The same can hold in the workplace too, and if there is a buy-in on the same, organisations can work better. In fact, inter-personal relations are a very important aspect in a working environment and humour and levity just add a zing to it. This is what Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas talk about in their book, Humour, Seriously: Why Humour Is A Superpower At Work And In Life.

They use a lot of science and strategy to put forth their arguments in this rather interesting book. There are numerous examples given which talk about how humour or levity can be exercised in an organisation. It is not that one has to make others laugh, but getting people to relax, especially if there is communication between seniors and juniors, can make the workplace better. Small little things like the CEO talking to the staff on non-office subjects can improve comfort level, which leads to efficiency when put together. This can be a useful tip for all CEOs where a small thing can make a big difference.

We have heard of various leaders who break the ice by always starting off with something in a light manner, which can be a song or a joke. Richard Branson is known for his sense of the dramatic. Some of his serious offsites held on fancy islands actually gave people a day to chill out so that they were fresh for official meetings. But such an exercise also creates a sense of levity as people get to interact with one another before the serious discussions and are able to cross barriers that may have otherwise existed. Here the authors warn that such things should not be predictable, or they lose their essence. For example, it is not a great idea to say that you are telling a joke and fail to live up to the promise.

The authors warn also of the proper and not so proper things to say and the remedial action to be taken when there are faux pas made.

It is also true, argue the authors, that most CEOs prefer to hire people with a sense of humour as it is perceived that funny employees do a better job. It makes people confident and strengthens relationships and boosts resilience in difficult times. Therefore, organisations must try to build a spirit of levity while making sure that it does not come in the way of work. In India, too, it is seen that the new-age companies, which started off in the IT space and now cover all the startups and younger organisations, have an informal culture which breaks barriers and creates a lighter working environment. We have heard of such cultures in advertising even in the Seventies and Eighties where age and hierarchy does not matter when there are professional interactions. Levity just makes things easier for all concerned.

The authors talk of four basic issues in this context. The first is how humour enhances creativity and problem solving. It encourages a kind of mental gymnastics that reveal connections and patterns which we could have missed. Second, it can be used to influence and motivate others. It has hence a percolation effect, especially when it starts from the top and spreads through the organisation.

Third it builds bonds and defuses tensions in tough times. This is not to say that we should be laughing all the time, but building trustful relations in an informal working culture fosters a different kind of resilience for bad times. Last it creates a culture where colleagues feel safe and joyful. It widens our perspectives and makes us feel psychologically safe and creates fertile ground for creativity to thrive.

Now being funny involves some degrees of exaggeration and spontaneity. These may not be inherent in our persona and may have to be cultivated, as all do not have this knack. This can happen in the language we use and often bosses who are self-deprecating strike the right notes with their colleagues.

Now humour helps to set the tone not just in an organisation but also in diplomacy, and here the authors do show that issues will remain unsolved even the USA and Russia can have lighter moments when negotiating, which makes the exercise of disagreement friendlier. The example of Madeline Albright is given where she was able to break the ice with humour even though she had the reputation of being the toughest and most uncompromising negotiator.

Further, as such a culture starts from the top the onus is really on the leaders to set the tone. How do they do so without compromising their authority? This is not easy because colleagues need to know who the boss is and ensure that rules are followed, and business objectives are met. They give examples of Warren Buffet, who is known to be self-deprecating, which makes his colleagues feel at ease while at the same time they know that they have to deliver. For example, forgiving errors with a touch of humour conveys the message that there is a fault without being critical. This is a way of not scaring employees.

This is clearly a book for leaders or those aspiring to be at the top. It always starts at the top and once established, can flow through the veins of the organisation quite swiftly. Indian CEOs need to take cues from this book. We have read about those at the top ruling by spreading fear and threats. Eccentricities have varied from being abusive to throwing papers and asking people to resign. Aaker and Bagdonas show that there are better ways of running a company for sure.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings

Humour, Seriously: Why Humour Is A Superpower At Work And In Life
Jennifer Aaker & Naomi Bagdonas
Penguin Random House
Pp 257, Rs 699

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