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Opinion

When Humor Isn’t So Funny

The old saying “everybody loves a comedian” has regretfully given birth to a time where everybody thinks they’re a comedian. Sadly, what many have failed to realize is the old saying noted above was meant to be sarcastic…We all love good humor, but the truth is all humor is not good. The timely and appropriate use of humor is an asset to any leader. Likewise, distasteful or inappropriately timed humor can be a significant liability.  As a leader it’s quite easy to get a laugh – your title will virtually guarantee it. Therefore it’s important for leaders to become skilled at distinguishing the difference between a compliant chuckle and a sincere chortle. Good humor can bring people closer, but poor humor can be one of the strongest repellents known to man.

Did you hear the one about the pastor, priest and rabbi who went skydiving? Just kidding…The very nature of humor is it’s misunderstood more often than not. This makes humor a proverbial two edged sword – it can slice through the toughest of situations to your advantage, or cut sharply against you. When levity is used to appropriately ease a burden or relieve tension it is greatly appreciated. However when your rapier wit is used as a weapon of humiliation or intimidation you are confusing humor with arrogance. I believe it was Winston Churchill who said: “Humor is a very serious thing.” Just because you find something funny, doesn’t make it so. Put simply, to use humor to mock, belittle, undermine, or attack isn’t good humor, and it’s certainly not good leadership. Remember – many a silent tear has been hidden behind a public smile.

One trait that consistently ranks highly among the most admired leaders is they’re confident enough to poke fun at themselves. When leaders understand the difference between false humility (self-serving) and authentic self-deprecating humor (benefiting others) things quickly transition from awkward to funny. Smart leaders have long recognized the best punchline – themselves. Use the levity surrounding your experiences, mistakes, failures, challenges, etc., to turn teachable moments into unforgettable lessons.

Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should. The mental picture of a whoopee cushion in a board meeting might be funny, but it wouldn’t be appreciated. A general rule of thumb would be if something would get a laugh at a fraternity party, it’s likely not appropriate in the workplace. Jack Benny said: “Gags die, humor doesn’t.” Workplace humor is a tricky thing to be sure, and I’m hopeful the following thoughts will help keep you from falling down the slippery slope and having your jokes land with a thud:

  • Don’t confuse being a leader with being a comedian. Leadership is job number one.
  • An attempt at bad humor is not an acceptable excuse for unacceptable behavior. Racist, sexist, ageist, and other forms of discriminating acts won’t be tolerated because you attempted to cloak them in bad humor.
  • Use humor to lift people up, not to put them down. Don’t laugh at people – laugh with them.
  • Don’t force it – if you’re trying too hard to be funny your humor will fall on deaf ears.
  • Use your humor to make people feel more comfortable rather than more awkward.
  • Gags and practical jokes should only be used when those on the receiving end find them funny.
  • Don’t use humor to single someone out, use it to help them acclimate.
  • Sarcasm is not a license to belittle someone. Saying “I was just joking” doesn’t cut it.

Please leave your comments below, and if you have an appropriate joke to share, please do that as well. The best joke will win an autographed copy of my book

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    Dave Brand

    July 26, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Thanks Mike for sharing your thoughts on the topic of humor. People often say they want to work in a fun atmosphere and humor is certainly a way to interject levity. Your provide great advice on the type of humor that is ‘winning’ and the type that can be divisive. So thanks for helping us to see a smile is a good thing to bring to the office.

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      Mike Myatt

      July 26, 2011 at 4:00 pm

      Thanks Dave – your reminder to never leave your smile at home is a good one. Always appreciate your feedback Sir.

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    Dan Rockwell

    July 26, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Great topic. You remind me of my first visit out to your neck of the woods (West Coast USA). 

    I’m from the East Coast where sarcasm seems to be part of our culture. To make matters worse, I’m from the North East. (You should get the sarcasm there)

    While out your way, I was speaking for a week. Needless to say, my “great” wit went over like the proverbial lead balloon. It took me a couple days to find a solution – poke fun at myself.

    I found self-deprecating humor a reasonable solution that satisfies my sarcastic funny bone. 

    Lets face it, sarcasm is not the best type of humor to use in groups, especially a group that doesn’t know you well.

    Best,

    Dan

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      Mike Myatt

      July 26, 2011 at 3:59 pm

      Hi Dan:

      Although it caught me off-guard the first time, your sarcasm is one of the things I most appreciate about you. The fact that you’re willing to poke fun at yourself makes the sarcasm that much more enjoyable. Don’t ever lose the East Coast edge…Thanks for sharing Dan.  

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    Gordon CLogston

    July 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    Mike,

    Thank you for publishing this article. Too many people in positions of leadership do not realize the seriousness of an attempt at humor that has gone wrong. This has never been more true than in the global environments that many of us live in today.

    I have learned to leave the traditional jokes to the professionals and stick with what I know.

    Situational humor wherein I am the butt of the joke is my greatest asset. A few years ago, I was promoted into a position wherein I was assuming responsibility for the Canadian operations. Though I had visited many of the offices up there many times, most of my time had been spent with senior management and thus there were many employees who had never met or seen me.

    Due to the time of year a decision was made to introduce me to the entire staff at the upcoming holiday party as this would be an opportunity to have the largest gathering of staff.

    On the evening of the party I arrived at the designated location in my tuxedo and looked around to find a table where there was an open seat and specifically a table of people I had not met. As I approached the table, one of the spouses turned to me and said, “Its about time. I want a gin and tonic, my husband would like an old fashioned. Order up everyone, lord knows when they will send another waiter this way.”

    I grabbed a napkin, took their orders, went to the bar, got their drinks and took them back to the table. After serving the drinks I told them that the buffet would be open very soon. I then left the table to get ready for my introduction.

    When I was announced a few minutes later I walked up to the podium with a tray, a napkin and a drink and asked a fictitious person in the back of the room if they could indulge me for a few moments, I would bring their order over in just a few minutes.

    I got the laugh I wanted, and more importantly, the party atmosphere at our table was set for the night.

    Thanks for the podium, Mike.

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      Mike Myatt

      July 26, 2011 at 3:54 pm

      Hi Gordon:

      What a great example of how to transform an uncomfortable moment into opportunity by not taking yourself too seriously. A little confidence and a self deprecating sense of humor will make life better for all. Thanks for sharing Gordon.

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    Anonymous

    July 26, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Mike,
    Humor touches us by setting up expectations and then undercutting them–by hoodwinking our normal patterns of thought. When we guess what someone else is thinking, we take a risk. Sometimes we guess wrong, and there’s little more embarrassing than having humor fall flat, unless it’s having humor go horribly wrong and cause offense. It’s a powerful tool, humor, and needs to be wielded carefully.

    Dan is right–self-deprecating humor usually sidesteps the problem; no one can be angry if we make ourselves the comic victim.

    I was thinking of that just the other day when the neighbor’s pet ocelot scooted into our entranceway, grabbed my just-purchased pair of LL Bean workboots, and took off. Furious, I called Animal Control. A short time later, the officer, with the ocelot in tow, rang the doorbell and asked, “Pardon me Roy, is this the cat that chewed your new shoes?”

    Thanks for your post, and keep smiling.

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      Mike Myatt

      July 27, 2011 at 4:47 pm

      I always enjoy your humor, and I would have expected nothing less from Roy Atkinson…thanks for sharing Roy.

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    Mark Oakes

    July 26, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Mike

    Thanks for giving us cause to smile and reminding us to have fun 🙂 All to often the workplace drones on because we forget to have fun. Sad stories abound. For instance, one guy who went to work for a coffee shop but soon quit because it was the same ole grind. Another acquaintance wanted more excitement so he went to work for a restaurant. Unfortunately, leadership was bland and never had thyme for him.

    All my best

    Mark

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      Mike Myatt

      July 27, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      Hi Mark:

      Thanks for sharing and having the guts to air that story publicly – a groaner to be proud of:).

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    Glenn powell

    July 27, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Mike,
    Excellent topic and great ideas.  I agree completely with you that poking fun at yourself is often the best way to ease the situation.
     
    My story:
     
    Back in the days when long hair was “cool”, I started my career by working for a large coal mining company.  I was elated when I received my first promotion to the position of human resources manager at a very small midwestern coal mining town.  When my boss offered to recommend a church and a barber in the area, I should have known that my time there would not be boring.  As I drove around town upon my arrival, I notice the easily apparent lack of … diversity in the community.
     
    My first couple of weeks were somewhat uneventful.  However late on a Friday afternoon shortly thereafter, I received a call from one of the retirees concerning his medical benefits.  When I answered the phone, the retiree stated,
    “Well, I hear we just hired a black guy with a lot of hair as our new personnel guy.  I have a benefit problem, so I guess you had better transfer me to him!”
     
    His comments caught me completely by surprise.  I smiled to myself, and responded, “Well, you are talking to that black guy with the big Afro.  And, he would be more than happy to help you with any benefit problems you have!”
     
    The elderly gentlemen stammered that he was sorry he couldn’t tell by my voice who I really was.  I chuckled, and responded, “That’s OK, I often have to identify myself when I call my wife at home!”
     
    This retiree became one of my best friends, and one of my most vocal supporters in the town.  And, we joke about this incident every time he calls. 
     
    Thanks for the opportunity to share.
     
    Glenn

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      Mike Myatt

      July 27, 2011 at 4:40 pm

      Hi Glenn:
       
      Thanks for sharing a great story. Humor not only breaks down barriers, but it can form strong bonds and create the basis for enduring relationships.

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    Elliot Ross

    July 27, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    So true Mike, I also agree that self deprecating humor is usually the way to go if you are trying to break the ice –

    There is no place for mocking, belittling ‘jokes’ at others expense –

    There is one other form of humor not mentioned, call it the ‘Esprit De Corps’ humor of shared pain & triumph.

    A team surmounts all odds and is successful – often humor about that shared experience is a great way to increase the performance and bonding of the team.

    This type of humor relies on the shared experience, to an outsider it would be incomprehensible.

    Regards & Thanks

    Elliot

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      Mike Myatt

      July 27, 2011 at 4:33 pm

      Hi Elliot:

      The old military man in you is showing through. Humor is the perfect basis for finding common ground, and is absolutely key to team building, morale, culture, etc. Thanks for sharing the great reminder Elliot.

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    John E. Smith

    July 27, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Hi, Mike
    Excellent article.  The other comments have amplified some of my reactions already, so I’ll cut to the chase:

    The effective use of humor is just one more example of the leader’s emotional intelligence . . . or lack thereof.

    Appreciate your nuanced and thoughtful observations.

    John

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      Mike Myatt

      July 27, 2011 at 4:31 pm

      Hi John:

      The development and amplification of emotional intelligence can only go so far without incorporating humor. Thanks for bringing clarity to this subtlety John.  

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    Anonymous

    July 27, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    People need to recognize the difference between comedy and humor. Comedy
    can be one of those forced moments where the boss, or anybody else
    tries to make a joke which will generally bring everything to an
    uncomfortable grinding halt. Humor is something that may organically
    grow out of a situation and can be used as a teaching tool, or diffuse a
    potentially tense situation.

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      Mike Myatt

      July 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm

      Hi Charlie:

      I think all of us have witnessed a comic tragedy. Thanks for pointing out the distinction between comedy and humor. Well done Sir.

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        Word Wiz

        July 28, 2011 at 2:16 am

        Hi, Mike. Thanks for the kind words. We’ve all been “victimized” by someone’s idea of comedy. I use improv in my business and one of main rules of improv is to NOT try to be funny. Because whatever comes out of that will die a slow, painful death. Especially for everyone else.

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        Anonymous

        July 28, 2011 at 2:33 am

        Hi, Mike. Thanks for the kind words. We’ve all be victimized by somebody else’s idea of comedy. I use impro as the cor of my business and ne of the cardinal rules of improv is to NOT try and be funny. Otherwise everything dies a slow, painful death. Especially for everybody else in attendance. As my Uncle Murray used to say, “Never overlook the opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”

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    Mike Myatt

    July 27, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Hi Max:

    Agreed – getting subordinates to laugh is not hard. The real test of humor is when the people who know you the best and are not obligated to respond give you a laugh. Thanks for stopping by Max.

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    Mike Myatt

    July 27, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Hi Tanveer:

    I actually laughed at that joke – not sure what that says about either of us, but you’re definitely in the running. Thanks for the contribution Tanveer.

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    Mike Myatt

    July 27, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Hi Jim:

    Thanks for the reminder of how some of the best dealt with the topic of humor. There are always great things to be gleaned from a study of History.

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    Mike Myatt

    July 27, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Hi Jim:

    Thanks for the reminder of how some of the best dealt with the topic of humor. There are always great things to be gleaned from a study of History.

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    Mike Myatt

    July 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Hi Shawn:

    I always refer to my physical characteristics by pointing out the obvious, which is that I have a perfect face for radio – the truth has set me free. Thanks for sharing Shawn.

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    Mike Myatt

    July 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    Hi Shawn:

    I always refer to my physical characteristics by pointing out the obvious, which is that I have a perfect face for radio – the truth has set me free. Thanks for sharing Shawn.

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    Ron

    July 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Tanveer’s joke is going to be tough to beat, but here goes:

    In a busy doctor’s office, each patient approaching the receptionist’s desk is in their turn told to go to the changing area, remove their clothing, don a hospital gown, and wait to be called.
    One patient in waiting gives vent to his frustration saying, ‘I don’t understand why I have to go through all this. I’m only here to be seen for a sore throat’. Another replies, ‘don’t feel bad buddy, I’m just here to pay my bill’!

    Ron

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    Kathy Klotz-Guest

    August 3, 2011 at 12:31 am

    I appreciated your article! Such a key point – fun v. funny. They are not the same thing! (Appropriate) Humor is always great if you can pull it off. However, even just have a lighthearted sense of fun makes a HUGE difference. In my experience as a marketing strategist and facilitator with an improvisational comedy background, I know that even just focusing on an attitude of fun and not forcing the funny is greatly appreciated by others. I think this is critical; when people think they have to funny, their risk-aversion often keeps them from trying anything.  It is a critical leadership skill. I have had executive recruiters tell me they won’t hire anyone without a sense of humor: Without one, they said, a person wouldn’t survive the crazy, up-and-down dynamic environment! Humor points to emotional intelligence and adaptability.

    In general I totally agree with you about self-deprecation from leaders. One clarification I would add is that too much self-deprecation is NOT a good thing. It’s an easy laugh that, when overused, can be seen as (whether rightly or unfairly) a lack of confidence. Self-deprecating humor is like good perfume – use it sparingly. If you make a mistake, however, by all means – show your humanity and have a laugh.  *That* people will respect.

    Thanks for the post!

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    Krunoslav

    September 15, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Excellent topic and great ideas.😉 I agree completely with you that
    poking fun at yourself is often the best way to ease the situation.

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