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One counterintuitive strategy sets great leaders apart

Hard work doesn't have to be serious, behavioral science suggests.

On television, there's no more iconic, half-witted boss than Steve Carrell's Michael Scott. While he rarely intends to be funny, he inadvertently injects humor and incredulous laughs into every episode of The Office.

Based on a growing body of research, funny bosses like Michael Scott can have a profoundly positive effect on office culture. Humorous leaders build relationships and induce positive emotions in their employees.

It doesn't mean normally serious, dry leaders should throw out jokes haphazardly, but if someone is naturally light-hearted, they could be better for business — and their employees' well-being.

I'm Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

The power of a funny boss — Often, people maintain the misconception that emotions, positive or negative, don't belong at work. However, studies have shown that emotional intelligence — picking up or putting out emotional information — helps employees feel more loyal and connected to their organization. In turn, they work harder and feel happier at the end of the day.

Psychologists define humor as "the ability to make others laugh or smile; playful creation of ambiguity; wit to ridicule the inauthentic, pompous, or privileged; and a cheerful temperament that supports the transcendence of adversity."

Humor is widely considered a positive trait, even when jokesters enter the office.

Studies show humor can improve employees' job performance and satisfaction, increase trust and loyalty, and make employees feel empowered at work. When appropriate and respectful, it strengthens relationships between managers and subordinates.

"As a result, [humor] motivates subordinates to 'go above and beyond' the call of duty to help their managers, coworkers, or organizations," researchers explain.

Using humor, leaders set the tone of the office, build relationships, and induce positive emotions. Managers’ humor is also critical for an organization to flourish.

Scientists argue leader humor is a "viable and unique interpersonal resource" that can engender organizational citizen behaviors. This is a complicated way of saying employees hitting deadlines, helping each other out, being good sports — behaviors that make a company run smoothly.

“Relational currency” — Leader humor engenders such benefits because it is a "relational currency," an expression of care and affection, that is valued by followers, scientists say.

"Leader humor signals that the leader is intentionally putting effort into relationship building, which goes beyond their prescribed instrumental role," other researchers argue.

The best part about humor is that it's a "socioemotional resource," they add. It is not "costly in an economic sense but is very valuable in a relational sense."

If it comes naturally, managers can use appropriate humor to enrich others' emotional experience, and in turn, their own.

Based on the findings, psychologists recommend managers use humor as a cost-efficient, effective, and enriching tool of leadership.

To liven up the office and make others laugh:

  1. Create a #random messaging channel: Create a place to share funny videos, memes, TikToks, or tweets that make people smile.
  2. Hire a comedian: Enlist a comedian to share a quick 15 minute set of jokes with employees.
  3. Leave time for casual conversation: For the first few minutes of a meeting, let people speak about non-work-related tasks. This informal communication can lift people’s spirits, strengthen bonds, and relieve stress.

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