Hav­ing the abil­ity to make peo­ple laugh will bol­ster your ca­reer, stud­ies show. But it can also back­fire spec­tac­u­larly.

Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By He­lena Wasser­man

the night be­fore Dick Cos­tolo took over as Twit­ter’s head of op­er­a­tions, he fa­mously tweeted: “First full day as Twit­ter COO to­mor­row. Task #1: Un­der­mine CEO, con­sol­i­date power.” Within a year, he did end up as CEO. Not through un­der­min­ing his pre­de­ces­sor, but by us­ing hu­mour in build­ing great re­la­tion­ships in the busi­ness and by be­ing a great com­mu­ni­ca­tor.

Laugh­ter is a pow­er­ful force in busi­ness There is ex­ten­sive re­search prov­ing the ben­e­fits of in­cor­po­rat­ing hu­mour in the of­fice:

Many stud­ies show that em­ploy­ees who fre­quently laugh with their col­leagues re­port lower stress lev­els (ac­cord­ing to some stud­ies, it also low­ers your heart rate and re­duce your blood pres­sure), and are more will­ing to col­lab­o­rate with one an­other. Laugh­ter has also been proven as an aid to bol­ster prob­lem solv­ing and cre­ativ­ity.

A re­cent study by aca­demics at the Whar­ton Busi­ness School in the US showed that peo­ple who ef­fec­tively used hu­mour were seen as be­ing more con­fi­dent and com­pe­tent, and were most likely to be elected as a group leader. The find­ings were sup­ported by other stud­ies that showed that ap­pro­pri­ate jokes can boost sta­tus, and help to mo­ti­vate em­ploy­ees and se­cure pro­mo­tions. In one sur­vey, 91% of ex­ec­u­tives (quoted in Forbes mag­a­zine) be­lieved that a sense of hu­mour is im­por­tant for ca­reer ad­vance­ment, while an­other study from the Bell Lead­er­ship In­sti­tute found that the two most de­sir­able lead­er­ship traits were a strong work ethic and a good sense of hu­mour.

Hu­mour can help you win in ne­go­ti­a­tions. Two sep­a­rate stud­ies have shown that adding a hu­mor­ous touch to ne­go­ti­a­tions can help to achieve bet­ter terms in a deal. One of the stud­ies had par­tic­i­pants in­clude a quip like “I’ll throw in my pet frog” in their fi­nal ef­fort to clinch a bid, and saw a marked in­crease in their suc­cess rates. In the other, a Dil­bert car­toon was at­tached to an email ne­go­ti­at­ing for a bet­ter em­ploy­ment pack­age, which also achieved bet­ter out­comes than those emails which didn’t in­clude hu­mour.

Us­ing hu­mour can be a pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tor. In­ter­na­tional mar­ket­ing stud­ies have shown that funny ad­ver­tise­ments have 25% more im­pact than other ad­ver­tis­ing.

Hav­ing a fun work­place with lots of laugh­ter can also boost pro­duc­tiv­ity and may even lower your wage bill. One US sur­vey showed that the ma­jor­ity of 2 500 par­tic­i­pants would work for less money if they worked in a fun en­vi­ron­ment.

Stud­ies show that ap­pro­pri­ate hu­mour will boost the joker’s sta­tus in a group and help make your job eas­ier. Un­til it doesn’t.

In truth, hu­mour can back­fire spec­tac­u­larly. An in­ap­pro­pri­ate joke or re­mark, which was meant to be funny, can com­pletely un­der­mine your own stand­ing.

Take Serge Be­la­mant, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Net1 sub­sidiary Cash Pay­mas­ter Ser­vices, who re­cently tried to quip about gov­ern­ment send­ing pi­geons to de­liver wel­fare grants. Or Cell C’s CEO José Dos San­tos who joked about women’s “bitch switch” and, in the same vein, the JSE’s for­mer CEO Rus­sell Loub­ser, who jok­ingly spanked a fe­male jour­nal­ist for be­ing late for a press con­fer­ence.

The Whar­ton study shows how dan­ger­ous in­ap­pro­pri­ate jokes can be: ac­cord­ing to the re­search, jokes that fall flat sig­nals low com­pe­tence and can harm your sta­tus in the work­place. How to avoid a sense of hu­mour fail­ure: First, know your au­di­ence. Make sure you un­der­stand the crowd. Your brand of black hu­mour may not go down well with the group of Sars au­di­tors vis­it­ing your of­fice. Keep a close watch on how peo­ple re­act. Many peo­ple laugh so hard at their own jokes that they don’t no­tice the sub­tle signs of dis­com­fort among those they are sup­pos­edly en­ter­tain­ing.

Let the joke die. If peo­ple are not laugh­ing whole­heart­edly at your joke, don’t try to ex­plain it. Just step away from the awk­ward­ness.

Don’t overdo it. Your work­place is not a sit­com set: ev­ery third line needn’t be a joke. There’s noth­ing as te­dious as some­one

Stud­ies show that ap­pro­pri­ate hu­mour will boost the joker’s sta­tus in a group and help make your job eas­ier. Un­til it doesn’t.

con­stantly de­mand­ing laugh­ter.

Learn from the ex­perts. As a part-time stand-up co­me­dian, Twit­ter’s Cos­tolo spent many hours in com­edy clubs and learn­ing how to de­liver lines that make peo­ple laugh. If you are strug­gling with be­ing funny, in­vest some time in watch­ing stand-up or TV come­dies. Don’t joke about things that peo­ple feel in­se­cure about. Like their jobs. Marissa Mayer, out­go­ing CEO of Ya­hoo!, was widely con­demned for jest­ing at an em­ployee meet­ing that she wasn’t there to an­nounce lay-offs “(pause) … this week”. Avoid ag­gres­sive hu­mour, teas­ing or dirty

jokes. Stud­ies show that mean hu­mour can lead to bad work be­hav­iour. Im­por­tantly, dis­parag­ing jokes that fo­cus on cul­tural or ra­cial dif­fer­ences are highly in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the South African work­place.

Turn on your­self. When in doubt, use self­dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour, tell a funny story at the ex­pense of your­self. For a man­ager, this is a pow­er­ful ges­ture and will cre­ate trust. Never make some­one the butt of your jokes – in­stead use hu­mour to in­di­rectly boost a col­league (“I don’t know whether to present your Pow­erPoint, or award it the Os­car for Best Ex­pla­na­tion of For­eign Tax Codes.”) Don’t sin­gle peo­ple out, make them feel part of some­thing. Some­times, sar­casm works, okay? In­ter­est­ingly, a new study from aca­demics at the Columbia Busi­ness School shows that sar­casm could have a pos­i­tive im­pact on the work­places where em­ploy­ees trust each other. The study shows that re­ceiv­ing sar­casm from trusted co-work­ers can in­crease cre­ativ­ity with­out el­e­vat­ing con­flict. If you don’t have a trust­ing work re­la­tion­ships, sar­casm will in­crease con­flict – but it could still boost cre­ative so­lu­tions.

Laugh at other peo­ple’s jokes. As the writer Maya An­gelou said: “I’ve learnt that peo­ple will for­get what you said, peo­ple will for­get what you did, but peo­ple will never for­get how you made them feel.”

Re­mem­ber that as a man­ager, you set the mood in the of­fice.

Dick Cos­tolo For­mer CEO of Twit­ter

Rus­sell Loub­ser

José Dos San­tos CEO of Cell C

Marissa Mayer Out­go­ing CEO of Ya­hoo!

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