You Cannot Be Serious! How to Use Humor to Boost Your Career

You Cannot Be Serious! How to Use Humor to Boost Your Career

By Nuala Walsh

Use this double-edged tool to look smart not stupid.

When I worked in fund management, we had a rallying cry, “Let’s put the fun in funds.” It was greeted by one of three reactions: a hearty guffaw, silent horror, or nodding heads. After all, investing is a serious business of revenue generation and return maximization. What would clients think?

Using humor at work can be either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid, depending on your timing, audience and content. The same amusing remark, pun, prank, banter or joke can get you fired or hired. The best leaders appreciate the difference and use it to their advantage.

This seems obvious but obviously, it’s not something everyone thinks about. How often have you heard a colleague impulsively spew what they think is wit?


To understand how to succeed, you must understand why we fail.

Being Stupid: Humor That Gets You Fired

Clearly, humor is subjective, taking many forms. Just as some people love or loathe slapstick comedy, it’s no different hearing workplace banter. When you’re tempted to wisecrack, consider the four ways I find even the best leaders misstep.

  • Misinterpretation. We’ve all made light-hearted remarks that others found distinctly unfunny. As a leader, it’s risky to be your comedic self. Few jokes travel globally from Beirut to Brixton. Some are interpreted in bad taste. For example, comedian Kathy Griffin faced backlash in 2017 after posing for a controversial photo holding a fake severed head resembling Donald Trump. She lost her CNN New Year’s Eve broadcasting gig.
  • Distraction. Excessive humor is counterproductive, distracting and disruptive. The office clown’s non-stop joke-cracking can be an irritating nuisance and performance inhibitor. Equally, inappropriate timing can make an innocuous comment appear sinister, threatening or macabre. Even more career-limiting is an applause-hunting leader trying to gain popularity. It backfires as desperation.
  • Offense. Albeit unintentional, making others the butt of your joke in a derogatory manner can fuel a toxic environment. Any misguided remark that targets race, gender, religion, or protected characteristics is not just stupid but a source of discrimination, damaging relationships and reputation.
  • Normalization. When overly-relaxed senior executives tease colleagues, make innuendos or tell smutty jokes, it sets a cultural norm and sends signals about behavior acceptability. Some struggle to know where this line is but once crossed, it’s hard to reverse.

Most professionals are preoccupied with curating identity, hungry to appear smart and sensitive. While workplace joke-telling is risky, is the risk worth taking? That depends on the value created and the sophistication of the messenger.

Being Smart: Humor That Gets You Hired

Can a laugh a day keep a crisis away? Perhaps! John McEnroe once touted, “You cannot be serious.” In the workplace, he has a point. Leaders can strategically use their own brand of humor to manage conflict and boost communication, camaraderie and culture. Moreover, being able to laugh at yourself is a sign of emotional intelligence. Let’s consider how.

  • Rapport Building. When used appropriately, humor can foster camaraderie in a positive environment. Virgin Founder Richard Branson injects irreverence as a brand value, known for his charismatic banter. Funny people are generally liked. And the more you’re liked, the more customer influence increases. This leadership style improves team dynamics, boosts morale, and accelerates productivity. For example, after viewing a comedy clip, employees were found 10 percent more productive than colleagues.
  • Commercial Impact. As advertisers know well, funny messages are more salient and memorable. During sales pitches, humor establishes stronger psychological connections. Researchers found closing a pitch with a quip, “My final offer includes my cat” increased concessions and willingness to pay by 18 percent. In the hospitality industry, research finds those who present the bill with a sun image received on average 23 percent more tips.
  • Conflict Reduction. Well-timed hilarity can reduce deadline stress and diffuse interpersonal conflict. Blending humor with humanity is welcome during difficult times. For example, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was known for witty speeches during wartime. It’s an easy way to relax negotiations. It’s the same when mourners resort to gallows humor.
  • Stress Relief. A jovial repartee can break the ice and alleviate tension. Consider a high-stakes interview where Zoom fails, do you freeze or try the one-liner? The comedian looks more confident and puts others at ease, often getting the job. In a medical study, the research found that patients interpreted the humorous clinician as caring rather than callous.
  • Maximum Engagement. During presentations, any effort at levity will entertain a bored audience. It helps the presenter alleviate their own nerves. When I did my first TEDx talk, I started with a joke to relax the audience — and myself!

Used well, humor is an asset, not a liability. While humor is a double-edged sword, dependent on culture and context, smart leaders take it seriously and use it strategically to motivate people in very simple ways.

It’s a win-win in a serious world.

*Nuala Walsh is CEO of MindEquity, behavioral scientist, and non-executive director

*This article first appeared on the Inc Australia website

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