I spent three years in weekly executive team meetings with the senior leaders of a company without hearing a single laugh—well, at least from them. I uttered, in my opinion, some remarkably funny statements now and again. But generally I was the only one to chuckle. Those were three lonely years.
It was then that I began to wonder if there was a connection between the lack of laughter and the limited influence these leaders seemed to wield in their organization. As we began an effort to influence desperately needed change, I recall a hallway conversation with the chief operating officer: "We've been measuring attitudes and behaviors here for 30 years and have yet to see anything cause a blip," he said. "Good luck."
I walked away wondering if this COO even realized that his apparent indictment of his people was, in fact, an assessment of his own leadership. I didn't laugh about that.
Around this same time I had an experience that made the correlation between influence and laughter more apparent. One morning, I met with the top team in a large health-care company. As I taught concepts about influence, I was struck by the muted response that I and the material received. After the session, however, every one of the executives pumped my hand expressing effusive appreciation for my contribution. "It was the most fun I've had in that boardroom in 20 years," one confided while looking around furtively. I was baffled by their gratitude because their body language during the session had made me want to check for pulses.
As I wondered whether the lack of overt laughter was a regional phenomenon, I met that afternoon with union leaders and front line workers from the same company. You'll have to take my word for it, but I presented exactly the same ideas, using the same materials, with the same enthusiasm. This time, the team reacted with raucous laughter, knee slapping, Coke-spitting—and far more dialogue about implications and applications to their workplace than their executives had offered.
laughter indicates trust, openness
I'm not about to stake my career on the following claim, but I'm comfortable believing that there's enough of a correlation between leadership and laughter to warrant consideration. If people in your organization don't frequently cackle out loud with each other, you've got serious trouble—in two ways.
First, a lack of laughter can signal a lack of trust. Evolutionary biologists point out that our brains are wired to assess every person we encounter in two ways: 1) Do they intend me harm?; and 2) Are they capable of making good on their intentions? When we conclude that those around us are both motivated and able to harm us, we operate under constant anxiety. In this condition, the humor we tend to muster is the gallows type.
At most of the organizations I've worked with, scarce laughter meant little trust. Laughter is one of the most natural human behaviors. Babies chortle from the time they're a few weeks old. When adults stop doing it, it's usually because they've assessed their environment—and colleagues—as threatening. What's more, people who are scared are self-centered. They focus on managing appearances in order to avoid a fatal misstep.
One of the fastest paths back to laughter is to work on restoring trust. The lack of laughter is a symptom of a deeper problem—that people feel anxious rather than safe at work. As you sort out the more fundamental issue of trust, you'll find that the human need to chortle will reemerge. And while you're doing the hard work of rebuilding trust, you can accelerate the sense of kinship that fuels team performance by fostering opportunities for healthy laughter.
Second, a paucity of play can be evidence of a toxic lack of humility. There's something disarmingly humble about losing it to laughter. After they've had a good laugh people breathe easier, become more creative, drop defenses, open their minds, and speak more freely. Laughter—at least the healthy kind—is usually a communal act. We do it as a tribe. When we do it together, we create a connection that eases communication and frees us of the need to focus on ego over results.
A CEO's shocking confession
When people are sufficiently humble, they laugh more often at themselves than at others. Their humor is more often self-deprecating than self-promoting. It doesn't thrive at the expense of others. This is humor that invites intimacy, whereas the barbed kind promotes self-protection. When people can laugh, they tend to be more comfortable when they appear to be less than smart, which happens to be the most efficient path to getting smart.
Toward the end of my three years in the humor desert, the CEO did something unprecedented. At the conclusion of a very formal management briefing—where the top 200 managers in the company sat at rigid attention for 90 minutes while senior management assaulted them with dozens of action-packed and data-dense slides—he dropped his normal, military-style austerity and said: "I've got a confession to make." About 170 of those who had been sleeping with their eyes open were suddenly riveted to the lectern.
"It's come to my attention that some of you see me as a bit stiff," the CEO said.
It was a joke. Not a good one, but a joke. No one quite knew how to respond. People frantically scanned the room peripherally to determine how others were responding to such a break from form. Most took the safe route and offered noncommittal smiles—enough to show sympathy while maintaining plausible deniability in the event the comments took an unexpected turn.
"This came to my attention when I made People's 100 least-huggable list," the CEO continued.
Next came humility—and contact
An actual ripple of laughter cut across the room.
"The point is, many of you see me as unapproachable—and that has suppressed dissent in some pretty important policy discussions. I want to change that. And I could use your help. I'd like to invite any of you who'd be willing to give me feedback—to let me know what I'm doing that makes it tough to be candid with me," the CEO finished.
It was not only the first show of humor, but the first expression of humility from that lectern since it had been hammered together sometime during World War II. The entire group sat paralyzed with indecision. Is this a trap? Is he trying to draw out his enemies? Or could this be real? Could the laws of physics really change this much in so short a time?
Finally one man raised his hand and said, "I'd be happy to." To which the CEO said quietly, "Thank you. Thank you very much. I'd welcome any of you to meet with me over the next couple of weeks if you'd like as well."
From that day, a remarkable change began to take place. While the executive team meetings couldn't compete with Comedy Central for laughs per minute, a warmth and humor entered the room that bespoke increased trust and greater humility. This change in environment fueled a higher degree of candor and collaboration that over time, affected some of the most consequential decisions the company made.
While leadership involves much more than laughter, if people LOL too infrequently in your company, you may want to examine both your team and yourself. Laughter, trust, and humility are inseparably connected with each other—and with results.