Thoughts on Leadership: Laugh It Off

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me at home, starting Monday with my typical WIG calls. On Tuesday, I attended the Berkshire Hathaway Energy Executive Team Meeting followed by the HomeServices of America Corporate Team Gathering—a virtual gathering, of course. Yesterday, I was in a studio in Silicon Valley, California, safely filming videos for the upcoming Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Sales Convention.

Filming videos is always such a fun experience. We laugh at the outtakes and don’t take ourselves too seriously if we miss a line in the script. (That’s what editing is for, right?) We can smile and be ourselves. And when we smile, we appear friendlier and warmer—even through the lens of a camera.

Laughter really is the best medicine and it’s an underrated characteristic of extraordinary leaders. Oscar Wilde once said: “It is a curious fact that the worst work is always done with the best intentions and that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves too seriously.”

Have you ever been around a person with no sense of humor? It’s not a great experience, and it’s nothing like being around someone with infectious, positive energy. The most positive people find laughter in all circumstances. They find joy in what others might consider joyless situations. And that’s key to not only leadership but also a successful, fulfilling life.

There is a time and a place to be serious, but we can’t be serious all the time. In a recent article, Inc. magazine cited an MIT study that found when a group was asked to “produce ideas on the spot, improv comedians were 25% more creative than professional product designers.”

The insight? Creativity and humor are connected. Humor unlocks our ability to create beyond the confining limits of seriousness.

Dr. William Kahn, professor of organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business and a veritable mastermind on the topic of employee engagement, uses the term “psychological safety.” This phrase describes the feeling of being your full self without worrying about how the consequences of your actions will affect your image, reputation or career. When employees have low psychological safety, ideas flow less freely or naturally. When employees experience higher levels of psychological safety, they laugh off mistakes and can be more creative in conversations with their team members.

The concept of psychological safety is critical, especially when coupled with a 2016 study published by The Harvard Business Review that found ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more.’’ Of course, now collaboration has moved to digital platforms rather than in-person interactions. Despite the medium, collaboration is still very critical and psychologically safe. Collaboration—when team members work together in a way that emphasizes teamwork and encourages diverse ideas—is a key part of how goals are accomplished.

Team members who feel more secure and comfortable with each other are team members who don’t take themselves too seriously, which can positively impact performance. Sophie Scott, a British neuroscientist and professor at the University College London told Inc., “Laughter is a subconscious signal that we’re in a state of relaxation and safety.”

A study cited by Inc. described that showing people stand-up comedy prior to asking them to solve puzzles allowed participants to solve up to 20% more puzzles. Fun and laughter really can improve team productivity, and our ability to ideate freely and problem-solve. Teams bonded by humor aren’t afraid to fail fast and move forward; they laugh off their mistakes and keep on keepin’ on until they find the piece of the puzzle that fits.

As children, everything is funny. Life is a game to play with no care about winning or losing. There’s always a spark of curiosity and humor in a child’s eyes and as we get older, that spark dims with the realities of the world. But why should it? Care-free attitudes and laughter make the day-to-day more interesting, sparking childish joy once more.

And humor isn’t just good for our mindsets, it’s also a way to soften criticism, diffuse tension and avoid burnout or employee fatigue. Plus, it’s actually healthy for our bodies. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can:

  • Enhance our intake of oxygen-rich air.
  • Stimulate our heart, lungs and muscles.
  • Increase endorphins released in the brain.
  • Cool down a stress response.
  • Decrease heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Relax our muscles.

The Mayo Clinic also cites, “Positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses.”

So, what’s the message? Not everything in the world is funny. But the more you can laugh the bad off, the brighter your world becomes.

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