On being and becoming a ‘playfully serious’ leader

Having a sense of humour is often listed as one of the most sought-after qualities people seek in a life partner and it's no less valued in leadership.

Adopting a serious attitude speaks to essential values such as commitment, focus and discipline in the workplace. However, it can take the joy out of work when seriousness becomes over-valued. Play is a fundamental part of human nature, and in the age of employee experience, the need to bring some lightness to work has never been more important.

Having a sense of humour is often listed as one of the most sought-after qualities people seek in a life partner and it's no less valued in leadership. So much so that Stamford University even run a leadership course on it, citing, "Next to power without honour, the most dangerous thing in the world is power without humour." (Eric Sevareid)

Studies have shown numerous positive benefits of humour and laughter, such as a positive correlation with ideation and creativity.

In one study, researchers found that people experience and use humour differently, and not all humour is positive. Whilst certain types of humour support increased self-esteem and strengthen social bonds, others can negatively impact individual wellbeing and social connection.

The quadrant model below shows a diagrammatic interpretation of the four dimensions assessed.

(UL) Self-enhancing Humour (positive/individual)

Humour demonstrates a positive outlook on life, even during adversity and general ability to find the funny side of things. People exhibiting this humour tend to be optimistic, emotionally well-adjusted and cope well with stress.

(UR) - Affiliative Humour (positive/collective)

Humour that is affirming of self and others facilitates positive relationships and reduces inter-personal tension. For example, telling funny stories, sharing jokes and laughing with others. People exhibiting this humour may also use self-deprecating humour to put others at ease and tend not to take themselves or their mistakes too seriously.

(LL) Self-defeating humour (negative/individual)

Humour involves jokes at one's own expense to the point of excessively self-disparaging as a means of achieving social acceptance or gaining approval. People exhibiting this humour will tend to laugh along with others when they are being ridiculed, hide underlying negative feelings and avoid dealing constructively with issues. The use of this humour is correlated with low self-esteem.

(LR) Aggressive Humour (negative/collective)

Humour displays superiority or power over others or an attempt to enhance self-esteem at the expense of others. For example, ridiculing, sarcasm, 'put-downs' or manipulation of other people. People exhibiting this humour tend to do so without genuine regard for the potential negative impact on others.

In summary, the discerning leader will seek to balance the tension between the serious and the playful at work and focus on employing humour that can positively impact employee experience and organisational culture.

Do you have a sense of where your attitude about yourself as a leader, your colleagues and your work sits on a continuum from serious at one pole to fun and playful at the other? What about your style and use of humour?

By completing an online questionnaire, you can learn more about your strengths and biases with the four dimensions of humour outlined in this article.

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