You can always tell how smart someone is by what they laugh at

In honor of National Humor month, our very own Steve Cody examines why you should inject a little levity into your workday.

I’d like to claim credit for the words in the headline, ‘You can always tell how smart someone is by what they laugh at,’ but they belong to Tina Fey. And they’re just one of countless astute observations made about the tremendous power of humor in business in a new book.

Fey, along with other comedians, as well as some of America’s best known CEOs and leadership gurus all contributed pithy comments to the book, “Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life.”

The authors are two Ph.D’s who teach a REQUIRED course about the importance of humor in the workplace at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

They’re doing so because, based on their extensive research as a behavioral scientist and leadership guru, respectively, the authors have proof positive that comedy not only differentiates an individual, it’s also a key attribute of the very best leaders of today and tomorrow.

I’ve known this stuff for years since, as a highly mediocre stand-up and improvisational comedian, I’ve seen laughter help me in business to build rapport, increase creativity and, yes, even help close deals.

It’s also why we’ve trained our employees in stand-up, tied it in to our charitable fundraising and, hold for shameless self-plug, provide comedy workshops for clients of all kinds.

Self-deprecating humor has been proven to make ALL leaders who embrace it seem more empathetic, vulnerable and, get this, intelligent (I’m an obvious exception to that rule).

But don’t take my word for any of the above.

Humor, Seriously

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, the co-authors of Humor, Seriously say, “Humor charms and disarms (in a business setting). Even small gestures of levity are powerful in negotiations.” (note to self: Try your New Jersey Transit material the next time you negotiate with a procurement officer).

“That’s in part because they (humorous words and phrases) spark human connection — and when we connect as people, we often get more of what we both want.”

I dare say we all want to spark more human connections as we battle our way through this horrible period in history.

But the words comedy, laughter and humor scare many uptight business executives who take themselves and their work far too seriously.

One head of internal communications at a global corporation who, in response to my suggesting we conduct comedy training for their fast trackers in order to combat anxiety, depression and poor morale, said, “I’m just too afraid that, in this cancel culture world of ours, someone will say something during the training that would trigger a lawsuit of some kind.”

Possibly, but not if the proper parameters are established in advance. When we train everyone from rocket scientists and lawyers to bankers and oncologists, we take a deep dive into each organization’s culture. We do this to determine what is, and isn’t, appropriate before any training occurs. So, to borrow the vernacular du jour, we make the training a “safe place to be.”

Your Teams & Your Clients Will Thank You

The results can be game-changing, especially for Gen Z and Millennial employees who have either been sheltering alone in an 800-foot studio apartment or moved back into the same bedroom they had in high school.

I could go on but must insert another pearl from the authors: “Research PROVES that humor can be one of the most powerful tools we have for accomplishing serious things. Humor makes us APPEAR more competent and confident, strengthens relationships, unlocks creativity and boosts our resiliency during difficult times.”

Here is a most excellent application of humor that was used by President Obama during a State of the Union Address. Try to imagine the off-the-charts anxiety you’d be feeling in the moments leading up to delivering a speech of that magnitude.

Here’s what Obama said when explaining the need for heightened government efficiency:

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in saltwater. But the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in fresh water.”

Obama took a long pause and then added:

 “I hear it gets even more complicated when they’re smoked.”

Republicans and Democrats alike laughed out loud. When’s the last time that happened?