I haven’t got the greatest memory when it comes to my childhood, but I can remember laughing. A lot. It has a lot to do with the area that I’m from. Liverpool is renowned worldwide for its comedy and whilst it has produced many famous performers, almost every person on the street is a comedian.
When I was a child, almost every week we’d go and visit a relative. Dad was from a family of 7, so there was always someone to see. And unlike other kids who didn’t want to be packed into the back of a car and visit their relatives, we couldn’t wait. And it wasn’t like we were visiting rich aunties and uncles, in fact more often than not, the walls were yellow from cigarette smoke, there was a pervading smell of damp and mould and the tea they served you could stand a spoon in. But we knew that at some stage of our visit we (3 boys) would be in absolute pieces laughing at something.
We were of course asked all the trivial questions about school, gently ribbed about girlfriends and of course (being from Liverpool) asked to dissect Everton’s latest performance (the team in red was rarely mentioned). They were interested and proud of their nephews and took a keen interest in what we were doing and encouraged us with stories of hardship and endeavour. Then they would take us – and themselves – to pieces and my stomach would be hurting from laughter for hours afterwards. Those self-deprecating stories added to it and we couldn’t get enough of it.
My parents played their part too and we got to watch shows on TV that continue to be a source of inspiration for me – Monty Python, Dave Allen, Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Kenny Everett and then as I got older, Fawlty Towers, Not the Nine O’clock News, The Young Ones, Blackadder, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, The Fast Show, The Office, The Royle Family and so on and so on. Comedy became part of who I am and ultimately my leadership style.
As I write this, I’m taken back to those places and can picture the younger me there taking it all in whilst having absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When my dreams of being a professional footballer died I knew that more than anything, I wanted to be the kind of person that people enjoyed being around. Someone who had opinions, principles, interests and stories, but was good company and committed to success. Not only that, they were the kind of people I wanted to be around and to manage and motivate me to achieve.
Not all humour works in the office though and you have to drop the tasteless stuff almost immediately. This doesn’t work at all. Humour has to be measured; used at the right time; in the right context; delivered in the right way and never offensive or personal in any way. Get it right and it works brilliantly, get it wrong and you could be out of a job. It’s that simple. It’s also important to remember that work is not (and never will be) a stand up show, unless you’re Peter Kay. If you’re delivering jokes endlessly, firstly you’re not putting your energy into the right areas and secondly you’ll likely be seen as the class clown.
But why should you use humour at all? Well, here’s 5 things I’ve learnt:
1. It reduces stress. Fact. It’s been proven. Seriously, count my grey hairs, I’m not doing so badly for 44. Hell, I’ve still got hair, even better. Not just your stress but your teams as well. People will feel more relaxed knowing that the environment in which they work is accepting of laughter and the odd joke here and there. They also know that if you’re having a crappy day, someone will be on hand to lighten the mood and put everything back into context for you. You’ll also be easier to live with and work will be left in the office every night and never taken home.
2. The best teams all have it. Think of all the great teams you’ve been a part of…why were they great? You were put under pressure, you got the work done, you got the rewards AND you enjoyed doing it. You need all of those elements to make it great. You spend more time with people at work than your family so why should it be anything other than enjoyable? Work should never feel like a remake of Oliver Twist, if anything it should feel like Bugsy Malone. Oh and don’t use the word ‘fun’ unless you’re making balloon animals.
3. It bridges the gap between leaders and staff. It creates warmth, trust and interest. It demonstrates a humanistic element to leaders that becomes motivational and let’s face it, for teams to be high performing, they need to be motivated, this doesn’t just happen by chance. It singles you out as a positive contributor, someone who isn’t brow beaten by life of the organisations approach to well, everything. Paypal CEO David Marcus caused a storm this month by criticising staff who didn’t support the organisation, telling them in an email ‘… do yourself a favour, go find something that will connect with your heart and mind elsewhere.’ I completely support this stance, providing that he and his management team are creating and maintaining a culture which supports and encourages the passion he seeks.
4. It enhances social interaction. Self-deprecation, good-natured pranks (the recent Ashes cricket scores were left on post-its on my monitor regularly over the Summer) and stories (personal or work-related) all enhance the relationships we have. It can be written as well as spoken and can work on many different levels, although I’d advise against sending jokes by email. That’s what we did 15 years ago, leave those to Facebook now.
5. It breeds creativity. The more relaxed the workplace, the more likely people will be to speak up and share those ideas. If your working environment is tense and stuffy, then the ideas will remain in people’s heads and you’ll move forward in baby steps. If you want someone to participate, give them a safe and encouraging arena in which to do it and humour can be at the heart of this.
Of course, there are way more examples of how humour can help, nurture and support successful leadership, but this is a brain dump in a blog, not an academic study. Nor does it cover the fact that success can be achieved without humour, I’m sure it can, I’ve just not seen it. And anyway, my daughter is begging me to watch Monsters Inc., so I’m really going to have to wrap this up soon.
At a morning tea held in celebration of my leaving (I think they just wanted to make sure), the CEO very kindly said that ‘Colin is one of the funniest people that I’ve ever worked with’. Kind words which required an instant riposte ‘…so not the most hard-working and dedicated then?’ Although inside I was thinking ‘ONE of the funniest?’ Must. Try. Harder.
Despite what you may have read nice guys can succeed. And when I find one that has I’ll let you all know what their secret is right after we’ve shared a laugh over a coffee.
‘Life’s too short to be an asshole, as an employer or as an employee.’ Louis C.K.