Who’s Laughing Now?

The Change Gear team is an incredibly talented one; each of our consultants brings a diversity of thought and experience to everything that we do. In this post our resident stand-up comic (as well as expert facilitator and coach), Sam Sanns reflects upon what she has learned about the relationship between comedy and leadership and whether leaders can learn anything from the world of stand-up.


A leader, a stand-up and a cynic walk into a boardroom…

Having worked in the worlds of coaching and stand-up comedy for the past two decades, I’ve become increasingly curious to see how these two very different worlds collide. I’m not usually one for a big bang so have instead decided to eagerly straddle both worlds in the service of exploring the true value of humour in corporate settings, providing tangible skills that a leader can employ. 

My career started in acting. I went to drama school after reading the shocking statistic that 95% of actors are unemployed at any one time. Result! You only have to work 5% of the time! It swiftly dawned on me however that only working 5% of the time meant you were only paid 5% of the time, which I hadn’t really thought through and so turned my hand to comedy. I also started to look for opportunities to utilise my passion for self-development and instilling confidence; something where I could help individuals who were blocked in realising their full potential. I studied hard and qualified as an Advanced Executive Coach. This provided a bridge between the brutal world of stand-up comedy and the often-sit-down tragedy of the boardroom. 

Business and humour are traditionally unhappy bedfellows. Of course, there’s the broad seriousness of making money, though often the differing roles and status of those collectively contributing to the company’s success can present communication challenges. I believed this to be worthy of further examination so, purely as an exercise, I pitched up a tent in the C Suite to see if I couldn’t create a titter or two, proving that they’re actually a match made in heaven, like Romeo & Juliet, Posh & Becks, Boris & Brexit. My objective was not to create stand-up comedians of leaders, but instead share the strategies and skills employed by comedians to win hearts and minds. This is what I discovered:

What’s in it for you as a leader?

Building Trust

Many communication models (including Patrick Lencioni) highlight vulnerability as an essential ingredient in building trust within a team. Humour is a way for leaders to show their humanity and a useful, controlled tool for shining a light on ‘selective’ vulnerability. No need to diminish your status or fear that you’ll come across as unhinged – humour can remove potential for an awkward response and leave you looking confident and credible as you reveal your poker hand with no apology. Trust will build. 

Being Present

Stand-ups live or die by how present they are. Trust me on this! A recent session I attended with global leaders illustrated just how hyper-vigilant one needs to be in order to observe reactions, stay in the moment and adapt one’s style to effectively influence the room. How often do we allow ourselves to fully sit in current reality and just observe the raw data? It can be overwhelmingly exposing to just ‘be’ and to put our own agenda aside. There are many exercises and strategies a stand-up will employ in order for them to read the room, enabling them to make conscious choices on delivering material, being physical, pushing boundaries and getting the timing right.  All this results in the notion that the individual who visibly displays the skills is one who is at the core – present; in stark contrast to one who hides behind the twin shields of PowerPoint and corporate jargon.

Authenticity

Humour can’t be faked. You can lie about your LinkedIn profile, be creative about your credibility, even say “I do” with a straight face when “I’d rather not” is your gut reaction, but you can’t ‘apply’ comedy. It is, by default, authentically you. Leaders who authentically connect with and influence their teams are those who are truthful, direct and honest. Comedy is egalitarian and provides a shared experience across all levels of an organisation and can break down barriers. There’s nothing better than being in a room where everyone is on the same page. It creates a common ground where colleagues at all levels can feel heard and valued. Laughter is contagious and an involuntary reaction to something that is funny. It’s always more about the relationships, not the jokes. As a word of caution though, not all leaders are authentically funny and the use of comedy to mask a hidden agenda can go horribly wrong and often just look and sound desperate. There are enough toe-curling examples by politicians over the years to illustrate this (Teresa May’s Dancing Queen anyone?) And a word of caution I’m not talking about the evil that is “banter” either, which is the exact opposite of authentic communication and often has a divisive rather than collaborative impact. 

Neuroscience

A good joke has a setup that takes the listener in one direction then delivers a punchline that sidetracks them down a completely different path. That wonderful ‘Aah, I didn’t see that coming!’ moment. Good comedy relies on the flexibility and adaptability of the front temporal lobe – the part of the brain responsible for spontaneity, problem-solving and judgement. People hear differently when they are amused, alert and open to suggestion. This can be of enormous benefit for leaders in a corporate environment, contributing to compelling storytelling, decision-making, consciousness and communication. 

Empathy

Humour provides an excellent tool to demonstrate empathy and draw out the best of human group behaviour.  To creatively share with a workforce that you know how they feel, without ever having to say; “I know how you feel, guys’ which can ignite a knee-jerk reaction of “Do you?!!!! Do you really??!!!” It can deflate tension in the workplace and is a means by which colleagues can openly share solutions and create a forward-thinking and transparent culture, taking teams from one emotional state into a more positive, future-focused mind set. It’s harder to feel like a victim when you’re laughing. Its rhetoric can provide an effective persuasive tool. A Clinical Director of an Intensive Care Unit, I worked with recently shared with me the value of humour in troubled times. Some professions seek refuge in black humour and already see the value of a leader that can stand unshakeable in this, think Adam Kay’s best-selling book “This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor” and you get the picture!

It’s absolutely not my intention to recreate Live at The Apollo within your workplace, or to encourage you to turn up to meetings riding a square-wheeled bike with a spinning bow tie. I will however provide a space where you can learn first-hand the value of comedy and the real benefit of appropriate humour. I will share exercises that bring this theory to life and offer techniques that you can put in your back pocket as another behavioural tool in your leadership toolkit. Try these techniques on for size and decide for yourself if they support you in your role as leader. At the very least, make someone smile today.

Mike drop.

If you would like to know about our lunch and learn session “Comedic Performance and Leadership” please get in touch with us at hello@change-gear.comwe would be delighted to share with you the details. What better way for your people to spend their lunch hour, than taking part in an endorphin-producing event, that will set them up for an afternoon packed full of productivity!

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