Secret To Successful Teams: Lead Them With Laughter - InformationWeek

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10/14/2015
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Secret To Successful Teams: Lead Them With Laughter

We all want a boss with a good sense of humor. But a new study reveals that humor at work is ineffective -- no matter how genuinely funny you may be -- if you're lousy at building and maintaining relationships with your team members.

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People have always connected humor with good leadership. It makes sense. One of the roles of a leader is to help subordinates feel at ease, and humor is a great way to do that, particularly when trying to boost spirits in a stressful IT organization.

But a new study (subscription required) indicates we may be seeing the relationship between humor and leadership backwards. We tend to assume that a good sense of humor make a person a better leader. But new research finds that those who are already effective leaders know how to use different types of humor more successfully than their counterparts.

First, let's look at a traditional study about humor and leadership. The Bell Leadership Institute surveyed 2,700 employees about the characteristics of effective leaders. "Sense of humor" and "work ethic" were the two characteristics that came up twice as often as all others. The survey found that the most effective leaders used inclusive humor to encourage the team, while those who used humor in negative ways -- to show off, cut people down with sarcasm, or overly distract people -- weren't very effective.

[ But hey, as long as we're on the subject of humor... Read IT Vs. Seth Meyers: 5 Great IT Jokes. ]

Sounds intuitive, right? Be inclusive and funny, and you're a good leader. You'll put people at ease, make them feel like you "get" them and that you know what you're doing.

As my philosophy professor used to say: "I think you are putting Descartes before des horse."

(Image: torbakhopper via Flickr)

(Image: torbakhopper via Flickr)

In the new study, conducted from the University of Missouri, researchers wanted to test the effect of negative humor on leadership. They found a startling thing -- negative humor worked as well as positive humor. The reason, they found, is that we've been viewing the relationship between humor and leadership backwards.

This time, researchers surveyed 70 leaders and 241 subordinates from 54 organizations and asked a few important extra questions. Subordinates were asked about their relationship with their bosses. What the study found was that a good relationship with the boss meant that both positive and negative humor worked. It was considered funny, and it built engagement and feelings of inclusion and all the good stuff we have come to like from humor in leadership. However, if the relationship between the leader and the subordinate was not already strong, humor fell flat regardless of whether it was positive or negative.

In other words, it isn't that good leaders use humor to build relationships. It is that we already see them as good leaders, so the humor helps. It is a crucial difference if you want to be a good leader. Walk in a new room firing jokes, and you may turn out to be the joke to your new team.

"The findings suggest that if leaders wish to integrate humor into their interactions with subordinates, they should first assess whether or not their subordinates are likely to interpret their humorous overtures positively," one of the researchers, Christopher Robert, said in a press release. "If a good relationship between the leader and the subordinate exists, then humor -- be it positive or negative in tone -- will only help to maintain the good relationship."

The takeaway for leaders is the same as it is for stand-up comedians -- know your room. If your work relationship is new or if it's a long-running one that has gone south, other approaches will work better than humor. Try some good old-fashioned communication and transparency.

If you've got a good relationship with your team, chances are you have the fundamentals down and can sprinkle in the jokes to keep your environment loose and fun.

Being quick with a joke isn't a replacement for old-fashioned leadership. It is a symptom or sign you've already made it.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio

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Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
10/30/2015 | 10:47:27 PM
Re: Aren't we all Pavlov's dogs
kstaron, you'd have to have a pretty oblivious boss to be able to pull off that training over the long term. Or you'd have to be far more suave than I am. I would make it too obvious and become ingratiating way too quickly!
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
10/29/2015 | 11:08:05 AM
Re: humor

@Joe I agree with you that sense of humor do motivates the employes and motivated employees are an asset for organization. Secondly you talked about reading mind and dealing with the situation in best possible manner. I am in sync with you point. I believe that humor can and should be used as a tool for motivation and on rare occassions. I am sure people will feel better after a tense work some one used words on lighter note. But using humor all the time will definitely frustrates the employee. What do you say?

kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
10/27/2015 | 12:07:34 PM
Aren't we all Pavlov's dogs
Broadway, Might not always be fun, but I bet it usually works. But it can work both ways too. I remember reading an article once on how to 'train' your boss, where you used the basic principles of 'catch them being good' acting how you want them too and rewarding them with praise. Perhaps with this you can follow with laughter as well to get a better relationship with the boss.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
10/20/2015 | 8:54:59 PM
Re: Funny you should mention humor...
Speaking of which...

Pavlov walks into a bar.  The bartender rings for last drinks.  Pavlov says, "Oh, darn, I forgot to feed the dog."
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
10/20/2015 | 8:53:52 PM
humor
Of course, a good sense of humor is different things to different people.  What this ultimately comes down to is that leadership = ability to read different people effectively and then quickly and efficaciously communicate with them in the most effective and appealing way possible.
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
10/20/2015 | 7:20:47 AM
Re: Funny you should mention humor...

@Broadway you are correct that here we are dealing with humans but the nature does not change. It is a proven fact that improvement will only come if you continuously strive for excellence. It will not be there if you remain stagnant. And having same reaction every time and always from boss will take away that will of acheiving excellence from the majority of employees as the boss will become predictable. What do you say?

Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
10/20/2015 | 12:10:29 AM
Re: Funny you should mention humor...
nomii, what you says  does jive with classic psychology. I remember taking Psych 101 in college and that was one of the classic experiments. Pavlov? You have animals perform tricks. You reward them regularly for success. Or you reward them randomly for their success (not every time). The latter animals perform better. It works, but being an employee in that situation I think would not be fun.
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
10/19/2015 | 5:23:14 AM
Re: Funny you should mention humor...

@Broadway thanks for your comment. I agree with your point there which is a valid one. But in mu opinion if everyone knows that how the boss will react will not make them correct the faults like the way if the boss remains unpredictable. They cannot judge his reaction (whether he can leave them or he can deal withthem severly), thsi will make them in hunt for excellence. Otherwise if a reaction is always same on one particular aspect and emplyees stayted living with it then you cannot see an improvement. What do you say?

Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
10/18/2015 | 10:43:19 PM
Re: Funny you should mention humor...
nomii, you don't think leaders should be predictable in their reactions and behaviors? Even if your boss is terrible, if he or she is predictable in their terribleness, that at least makes it tolerable. You know if you do A, he or she will respond with B. If your boss is great, but is all over the place --- high and low, comedy one day, high stress the next --- that'll bring a team down.
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
10/18/2015 | 2:23:58 PM
Re: Funny you should mention humor...

@Shamika I agree with you there. In my opinion not humor but occasional lighter tone will set the stage for a good communication inside the organization. The leaders should not be very strict always but again they should not be predictable about their behaviours. The catch is that leaders will remain in control of situations always.

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