There’s a dangerous, beautiful and life-giving capacity of laughter. It depends on circumstances. And how laughter is managed.
But I think we all agree that laughter itself is good.
Throughout history some people have attempted to subvert this life-giving capacity. The 1800s offered prescriptive dictionaries, alongside the descriptive dictionaries we have today. Prescriptive dictionaries attempted to tell you exactly what each word meant. Ambiguity was dead and vagueness was eliminated. All was clear; each meaning precise. Thankfully those dictionaries failed. Had they succeeded, art, literature, and humor would each have succumbed. Humans need the creative possibilities within language to foster life-giving laughter.
“Oh boy, where’s he going with this one?”
The Beautiful And Life-Giving Capacity Of Laughter Is Intentional
As leaders of teams and managers of individuals, you are fostering culture within your organization. That culture can be healthy or toxic, motivating or life-sucking, rewarding or exploitative, and so on. There should be a place for humor and laughter within your culture. But recognize that humor itself can be healthy or toxic, motivating or life-sucking, rewarding or exploitative.
Consider the intentionality of humor. Do you explicitly encourage humor and laughter or is it a nervous byproduct of team interactions? Is it considered a desirable part of your culture or something to be avoided?
Consider the subject of humor.
Are you able to laugh at yourself or do you prefer to laugh at others? What topics will you suggest or allow?
Consider the risk vs. benefit of humor. What does your culture gain from laughter? What might it lose?
Increasingly, leaders seek to foster organizations comprised of diverse people. As we diversify, we increase the likelihood that senses of humor will diverge and that what one person finds laughable, another finds cringeworthy.
What are you to do? Encourage laughter focusing on the natural limitations of people (remembering to laugh at yourself). Take advantage of the ambiguity and vagueness of language without elevating the pun to a status to which it should never aspire. Topics should be general ones that most will find amusing (“all” is a bar that is set too high).
Humor Can Be Dangerous And Destructive
Avoid humor focusing on people’s values, physical appearance, intellect, politics, or religion. Of course, if your intellect fails you at some point and you are able to laugh at yourself, then do so.
Recognize that a team member’s level of professional and personal security will impact her ability to laugh at herself and to appreciate being the subject of others’ laughter.
Recognize that sarcasm may be witty, but it is too confusing to be productive in the workplace. Were you speaking seriously or making a joke? We can’t tell.
Recognize that people aren’t always going to let you know when they’ve been hurt or are uncomfortable, so don’t assume that someone laughing along with you means they are comfortable with the joke. If you are in a position of power or authority, remember you can laugh more easily and freely than others who must read the wind to know whether to join in.
The Beautiful And Life-Giving Capacity Of Laughter Is Culturally Fostered
With all of this in mind, however, do not avoid humor. Foster a culture that risks the beautiful danger of laughter. Just because it can be cruel, divisive, and harmful doesn’t mean you shouldn’t embrace its life-giving qualities. You’re not going to quit using a knife to prepare food just because you could cut off your finger. It’s quite likely you will continue to use knives even if you have cut off one finger.
If you risk a culture of humor you will offend. That offense needn’t be intentional and it can provide opportunity for another life-affirming practice – apology and forgiveness. Please don’t neglect the beautiful danger of laughter. It’s an essential part of your humanity. Just tailor it to the setting, making sure it is reflective of the culture you seek to foster.
About Julian Consulting
Dr. Stephen Julian is President of Julian Consulting, a firm specializing in team health, effective communication, and leadership development. He has worked with leaders and their teams for nearly 30 years in a variety of settings – including Africa, South and Central America.
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