Do You Laugh and Play Enough to be a Great Leader?

Photo by Chaitanya Pillala on Unsplash

If ever the world needed to laugh, now is the time. I don’t want to ignore the deep emotions felt toward current events. However, finding a little (appropriate) humor and levity in grave situations is exactly what most people need. I know it’s what I need.

Unfortunately, I learned this lesson years ago when my sister’s husband died suddenly leaving her and her two young daughters behind. I stepped in as a co-parent, designated decision-maker, therapist, and (my most important role) the comic relief. I knew intuitively, and this NASA study confirms, that my sister and nieces needed to laugh during this stressful time. Being the jokester was an important role – although no easy feat.

It was an exceptionally hard year for all of us. Yet, when I look back at that year, it was full of laughter, goofy times, and tears (although some of those tears came from laughing so hard, we cried and nearly peed our pants).  It was our way of grieving and processing a horrific event (and it helped that we all shared a twisted and dark sense of humor).

Humor turns out to be darn good medicine in times of distress because laughter suppresses cortisol, our body’s fight-flight response. Cortisol is also linked to anxiety and increased risk of depression. By keeping cortisol levels down, humor supports our resilience in difficult times.

The Problem

There is a tremendous lack of trust in leadership. In 2019 a Harvard Business study found that 58 percent of employees trust a complete stranger more than their own boss. A complete stranger!

This study was before the insanity of the last couple of years, so it’s no wonder the Great Resignation hasn’t stopped its momentum. Even more unfortunate, people that switched jobs didn’t necessarily find a better work situation and are switching again.

While I empathize with those struggling to retain good employees, and people struggling to find work and a company that serves them better, there needs to be a better approach. Although increases in salaries are nice, companies are trying to solve the wrong problem by just paying employees more. The real issue is that employees don’t feel valued by their manager or the organization.

Employees want to feel connected to others and have a sense of belonging. We are in unprecedented times both with current events and what’s going on in the workforce. It’s time to find a more humane solution – humor and fun are just that solution.

“The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.” – Mark Twain

Humor and Fun are Good for Business

When we laugh and play our brains release a cocktail of hormones that makes us feel happier (dopamine), more trusting (oxytocin), less stressed (lowered cortisol), and even slightly euphoric (endorphins).

According to Humor, Seriously by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, there is a wealth of behavioral research linking the use of humor in business, to increase:

  • Power, by enhancing others’ perceptions of our status and intelligence, influencing their behavior and decision making, and making our ideas more memorable.
  • Bonds, by quickening the path to trust and self-disclosure in new relationships and making us feel more satisfied with our relationships over time.
  • Creativity, by helping us see connections we previously missed and making us feel psychologically safe enough to share our risky or unconventional ideas.
  • Resilience, by reducing stress in the moment, allows us to bounce back more quickly from setbacks.

In a study by researcher Wayne Decker, managers with a sense of humor (regardless of whether they themselves were funny) were rated by subordinates as 23 percent more respected, 25 percent more pleasant to work with, and 17 percent friendlier.

Researcher Amy Edmondson has been studying the benefits of psychological safety, the belief that we won’t be punished or ridiculed when we make a mistake, which makes us more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent. Basically, psychological safety equates to more productive and effective teams.

Aaker and Bagdonas linked laughter to psychological safety, even the anticipation of laughing has been shown to decrease cortisol (our “stress hormone”) and epinephrine (our “fight and flight” hormone) by 39 percent and 70 percent respectively, making us feel safer, calmer, and less stressed.

Researchers Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock and Joseph Allen analyzed prerecorded team meetings as well as supervisors’ ratings of team performance, both immediately and again two years later. The presence of humor in team interactions predicted more functional communication, problem-solving behaviors, and higher team performance.

With all this research showing that laughter brings a positive impact to the workplace, it is still not utilized enough by leadership. It should be considered a key leadership attribute. According to a recent Gallup Poll, the frequency with which we laugh or smile each day starts to plummet around age twenty-three. That is sad.

The Lies

We stop making play and fun a priority by telling ourselves lies.

“I don’t have time to play.”

“I’ll play and enjoy myself after I get my work done.”

“I won’t be taken seriously if I play at work.”

It’s all lies! You’d be more productive and effective at work if you played more and took regular play breaks.

Just like kids pay attention more in school after being given frequent, brief opportunities for play (aka recess), adults also need to take a break from work to do something fun or relaxing in order to help with focus and productivity.

Kids know what play is; it’s natural and helps develop their curiosity. Somewhere along the way, the ability to play is lost. It’s traded for career, family, and the never-ending TO-DO list. Success is measured in accomplishments and productivity. It is not measured by how good you feel and the quality of your relationships. The play muscle atrophies.

You’ve been taught from an early age to work and then you’ll be rewarded with play. In my experience, the harder you work, the more you work, and the less you have time for play.

If we know play takes work, then we know work takes play.

If leaders want to build trust, increase creativity to solve problems better, and have an engaged workforce, they must take a different approach. Humor and fun are that new approach. Play more at work!

Types of Play for Ideas at Play

Stuart Brown, MD, has been studying play for decades and in his book, Play, he outlines the five-play archetypes, which can be used as models for how to bring in more worktime play.

Rough-and-Tumble Play

Rough-and-tumble play is a great learning medium for all of us. Diving, batting, tug-of-war, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, kickball, and dodgeball are all ways to play actively. According to Dr. Brown, through this form of play, we develop emotional regulation as well as cognitive, emotional, and physical mastery.

Ritual Play

Chess, board games, and activities or sports with set rules and structures all fall into the world of ritual play. It is in ritual play that we can create, strategize, design, and engage in activities that bring people together for a common purpose or goal.

Imaginative Play

Remember when you were a child and had so much fun living out your fantasies and letting your imagination run wild? This is what imaginative play is all about! Storytelling, painting, drawing, crafting, and acting, including comedy and improv classes, all foster our imaginations through play.

Body Play

Brown defines body play as a spontaneous desire to get ourselves out of gravity—how much fun is this form of play! Yoga, Pilates, hiking, whitewater rafting, riding roller coasters, mountain climbing, surfing, and snorkeling all fit the mold of body play.

Object Play

This form of play will really bring us back to our childhoods as object play can encompass building with Legos, playing with Jenga blocks, building fortresses, and even having snowball fights. Manipulation of objects, building, and designing all fall into the object play category.

How can you model one of these archetypes to bring play into the workplace? Where can you be more playful and bring levity to a situation? How can you take yourself less seriously? What fun recess can you create for yourself or your team?

If you need help taking yourself less seriously or want a partner to help you create more play and joy, I’m here for you.