As in-person meetings have begun to resume, a comment I have heard frequently from staff members is, “It feels like I haven’t laughed in over a year.” This comes as no surprise. Given that the past year has brought us a global pandemic, social unrest, racial tension, and financial insecurity, there does not seem much to laugh about. But the comments I have received were not mild observations about missing a good laugh with friends, they were cries of desperation. People are realizing that they were missing, not just something fun, but something important. Given how laughter affects business, leaders should take note.
Researchers have discovered that the main purpose of laughter is not to signal that something funny has happened, but to foster agreement. Laughter is meant to support something that has been done or said. Inversely, if you make someone laugh, they will in turn agree with you. It is nearly impossible to disagree with someone with whom you have shared a laugh. As such, the ability to incite laughter is as important a skill in business as analyzing a P&L. Laughter also acts as a sort of mental lubricant. Immediately following a laughter episode, people can solve complex problems more easily and create innovative solutions more quickly.
So how do you go about bringing laughter back when there has been so little to laugh about lately? The first step is to recognize how laughter is suppressed. There are many factors necessary for laughter to exist; one of which is Permission to Laugh. We cannot laugh unless we feel we will be accepted by those around us. All it takes is one person saying, “I don’t think that is anything to laugh at,” and we are shut down. The power of the group is so important that people are sixteen times more likely to laugh at something when they are with others than when they are alone.
We deny other people permission to laugh based on what we consider to be inappropriate targets of the humor, or improper timing. Since laughter cannot exist without a target of the humor, we must avoid sensitive subjects. As for timing, there is an old saying, comedy is tragedy, plus time. We manage tragic events by looking back at them humorously. How long it takes for an event to be acceptable fodder for humor depends on the impact of the event, and each person’s personal attachment to it. The phrase, “We’ll laugh about this someday” applies to everyone differently. Of course, some events should never be the source of humor, no matter how far in the past they reside.
What does all this mean to a business leader. First, a good leader not only sets the tone of a group, he or she also clarifies the behavior expected from its members. For instance, sexual harrasment usually begins with an inappropriate joke, and leaders who tolerate such humor signal that they will tolerate more than just tasteless words. A leader’s role is to step forward and acknowledge whatever elephants are in the room. A leader sets the boundaries that the group must respect. Children do not play a game of tag without first deciding that running past the tree in the front yard is out of bounds. Humor has the same requirements. We feel more comfortable to laugh when we are sure we will not step out of bounds.
The next task of a leader is to give permission to laugh. In acknowledging the stress the group has endured, the leader can say, “I know that we have (issue) on our minds lately, but we will not let that get in the way of us enjoying life together.” It is vital that leaders not shy away from the weighty matters that take up space in staff members’ minds. Employees need to know that issues are respected, and therefore not the target for humor, and that their need to laugh together is equally as important.
Whether your business has remained in-person throughout the pandemic, or if you are re-introducing yourself to faces you have only seen on Zoom for the past year, don’t let the weight of the world’s ills take away the real reason people work in groups; to laugh together.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.