We’d failed. The executive who'd attended our kickoff presentation had rejected even our most basic premise. What he did manage to do, though, as we discovered after returning for a fresh meeting several weeks later, was recite a joke my colleague had told.
She didn't even remember telling it (it was about a consultant and a dog), but for whatever reason, it had stuck. That joke— which was immaterial, from our perspective, to the learning goals of the session—had somehow cracked our client’s brittle armor. Hearing him retell it eased us into an open conversation about his challenges leading the division. Ultimately, we emerged with a shared vision of what actually could help him.
Relaxing is key to learning. Learning is key to leadership. Laughter unlocks both.
When we laugh, we relax. As anxiety decreases, our capacity to retain information expands. Jokes also prompt what experts call "expectation failures," memorable instances of cognitive dissonance that, in forcing us to grapple with what's just been said, aid retention. In other words, the heightened emotion that humor evokes doesn't just make it easier for us to hit upon insights we otherwise wouldn’t—it also helps us remember them.
The reasons for that are partly physiological. When we laugh, we experience arousal and release, which serve another purpose as well. An intake of breath, flushed cheeks, a snort, even LOLz and emoji: the unavoidably embodied aspect of laughter draws us out of hiding from ourselves and one another. Heightened emotion renders us visible and, inevitably, vulnerable.
After all, laughter, as the author Parker Palmer writes in his book A Hidden Wholeness, "comes in response to our flaws and foibles: Who knows how foolish we might look when the joke is on us?"
Laughter serves the development of leaders not in spite of but because of the vulnerability it exposes. It’s a straight path from there to self-awareness and trust on a team. So the question becomes how, in high-stakes situations, can we prime ourselves to take the risk of humor?
After a colleague killed it in a keynote she delivered to a notoriously discerning client, I asked her how she gathered the courage to go off script.
She told me that she’d finally felt safe enough in that community (a leadership development program staffed by a regular team of facilitators and coaches, many of whom have since become friends) to let loose with a risk-averse client. It was a paradoxical idea but a compelling one: Presented with an excess of safety, we feel most comfortable taking risks.
Yet that makes intuitive sense. According to Palmer, we share laughter when we trust each other. And laughter begets more trust. To generate more of both, we intentionally need to cultivate the conditions under which we feel safe in a group.
Best-selling author Charles Duhigg has linked the development of psychological safety on a team with unstructured time together. As he’s explained in his podcast, "Study after study shows that if we spend a couple of meetings with that five minutes of getting to know each other, over time, our group will actually be much, much more productive."
In the case of my colleague, time spent offsite in a natural setting, and over informal team dinners (sometimes deploying a butter knife as a microphone), introduced what turned out to be a performance-enhancing playfulness.
Practices derived from improvisational theater also help energy flow freely and can encourage levity. For instance, while generating ideas or problem-solving, try following up your colleague’s next input with a "yes, and" rather than a "no, but" and you may find yourself offering a contribution of your own that’s merely silly—but it’s a useful exercise nonetheless.
More often than not, it leads to an insight or two that can deepen and helpfully complicate the original idea, even as it puts a smile on both of your faces. Greet your colleague’s funny expression with an invitation to "just say it!" and who knows what you’ll hear? But everyone will pay attention.
In our office, anything goes after 4 p.m. Glass walls prove an apt theater for physical humor. It’s not, however, all slapstick and animal videos. Like our client’s retelling of the joke about the management consultant and the dog, our humor sometimes has an edge to it.
And that’s okay. Jokes allow us to air thoughts and feelings—about ourselves and each other—that we can’t wholly own. As the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner reminds us year after year; as Freud observed long ago; and as subsequent research has borne out, jokes provide an acceptable form for aggression.
Propriety dictates that the president tell the press what he’s really thinking—no holds barred—only on a designated occasion, just as our standards of professionalism relegate my team’s irreverence to an afternoon ritual. But if joking is a psychological defense (and an unconscious coping strategy), it’s also the case that bringing defenses to light can be healthy and disarming.
Leaders are, at heart, learners, and vice versa. We cannot lead if we cannot learn.
And yet, our capacity to take in and process new information—to generate new insights and true growth—shuts down in response to the real or imagined derision of so-called superiors, the judgment of our peers, our own unmet expectations, and the fear of letting people down.
Laughter opens us up again.
James Thurber said, "Laughter need not be cut out of anything, since it improves everything." And in the boardroom, it's a leading indicator of a more human workplace.
Dana Bilsky Asher is senior vice president of organizational transformation at The Energy Project, a leadership development and management consulting firm.