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Humor That Works

June 1, 2020
Humor and Leadership — “That’s stupid, it’ll never work.” That’s not the response you’re looking for when you’ve just given a coaching client a piece of advice. I was working […]

Humor and Leadership —

"That’s stupid, it’ll never work."

That’s not the response you’re looking for when you’ve just given a coaching client a piece of advice. I was working one-on-one wit Mark, the CEO of a materials manufacturing company, and I had just recommended something a little out of the box for him.

Mark was lamenting that he was having a hard time connecting with some of his employees, particularly those who were two or three levels removed from him. He had also just recently asked if I knew any knock-knock jokes that he could share with his kids, who couldn’t get enough of them.

My suggestion that was so stupid it would never work was that he start his monthly all-hand meetings with a few of his kids’ favorite knock-knock jokes.

"Okay, it  may sound stupid, but you hired me to help you find ways to connect. Try it at your next meeting. If you still think it’s stupid, I’ll refund your money and find you another coach."

That’s quite the stakes to put on some knock-knock jokes, but I had a feeling it would work.

A few weeks later, after Mark’s next all-hands meeting, I asked how it went. "Should I be refunding your money?"

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"I really didn’t think it would work," Mark replied. "And I still think it’s silly.  But it wasn’t stupid. I gave them a little background like you suggested and told them my kids love knock-knock jokes, so I thought I’d share a few. I told the first joke and there was an awkward silence followed by polite laughter. I shared the second one and it got a better response, and then I shared the third one and I was shocked by how many people laughed.

"I even added, ‘If you know any good ones that I should share with my kids, let me know.’ After the meeting, I had five different people come up to me to give me jokes, three of whom were more junior in the company and one of which was a new hire."

Here are a few jokes that Mark shared:

Knock! Knock!
Who’s there?
Little old lady.
Little old lady who?
I didn’t know you yodeled!

Knock! Knock!
Who’s there?
Deja who?
Knock! Knock!

Knock! Knock!
Who’s there?
Noah who?
Noah good knock-knock joke?

Knock! Knock!
Who’s there?
Orange who?
Orange you sick of these knock-knock jokes?

Mark has gone one to make the knock-knock joes part of every all-hands meeting. Its value is not in the jokes themselves, though there are a few great ones. The value is that it humanizes Mark to his employees. He reminds them that he is a father before he’s a boss. And it give people at all experience levels an opportunity to engage with him.


As Adlai E. Stevenson said, "It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse." As a leader, you have to project confidence and make people believe that you’re someone worth following. But you also want to be authentic.

If we see someone as too perfect, too great, or too everything, we can get down on ourselves. We might think, I could never do that because I’m not attractive or talented or I don’t have a cool British accent. Sometimes the best way to be inspiration is to be aspiration.  I don’t want people in my audiences to look at me and think, I could never do that. I want them think, Well, if he can do it, surely so can I.

Showing that your are imperfect, that you make mistakes and are human, is a great way to build stronger relationship with your coworkers and encourage them in their own struggles. So is using humor.

WARREN BUFFET was born in 1930, is one of the wealthiest people in the world, and has the cool nickname "The Oracle of Omaha." I was born in 1984, I am not one of the wealthiest people in the world (yet), and the best nickname I’ve had was Silk, given to my by bowling coach because I was so smooth. It would seem hard for me to have much in common with Warren Buffet. And yet he seems approachable; it seems like he and I would get along. Why? Because I’ve seen and appreciate his sense of humor.

After the 2008 recession, Buffet explained what happened in a way people could understand: "You only find out who’s been swimming naked when the tide goes out. Well, we found out that Wall Street has been kind of a nudist beach." Or in response to Freddie Mac: "The amount of money they were told to look for would be inadequate. I mean, 5.5 billion at Freddie would be like taking a spoonful out of the Atlantic to try and save the Titanic."

He also uses self-deprecating humor. In an interview with CNBC, he was asked, "So that wasn’t you? You weren’t the one they spotted walking around in Beijing?" Buffett’s response was, "No that must be my double, George Clooney."

Buffet’s use of humor isn’t accidental: he considers it a key trait in being both successful and happy. And’ it’s particularly relevant for leaders. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found, "People who use (humor), particularly in stressful or seemingly one-down positions, are viewed as being on top of things, being in charge and in control, whether they are in fact or not."

In a study of executives at one company, executives rated "outstanding" used humor more than twice as often as those rated "average." Another study found that employees who rated their manager’s sense of humor as above average reported higher job satisfaction and were less likely to look for a job within the next 12 months.

Humor is an authentic way to inspire those around us. Which brings us to perhaps the most important humor strategy of all.


My guess is that you are a likeable person – at home. And then something happens when you go into the workplace. You smile less, you sigh more. You get stressed out more easily and have less patience for the people you interact with. You don’t have fun.

Humor is part of your daily existence away from the office. You watch TV shows that make you laugh, you crack jokes with your friends, you tell stories to family members, and you might even be a little silly from time to time. (We all sing in the shower and dance I the kitchen, right?)

To be more human at work, use more humor at work.

Here are 3 ways to do it while also enhancing your leadership skills.

Some of the funniest moment sin life are spontaneous, unplanned interaction with people. Being good at conversational humor means being present in the conversation, not distracted by other people or that electronic rock in your pocket. Use off-the-cuff humor by staying focused on what other people say, having a playful attitude, and yes and-ing the moment.

One of the quickest ways to get someone else to open up is to open up yourself. Reveal your own passions and prove that you’re not a robot or someone who takes themselves too seriously,. Talk about what excites you, what you do outside of work, or your kids’ favorite knock-knock jokes.

Self-defeating humor can be a great way to reduce status differentials and build better connections with your team. Just use it sparingly and always deliver it from a position of confidence to strike the right balance of humor and humility.

To humor is to human. Do you think it’s a coincidence that both words start with "h-u-m"? (Nah – it’s totally a coincidence.) Inspire the people you work with by being a human in the workplace.

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About the Author: Andrew Tarvin is CEO of Humor That Works, a consultancy for human effectiveness, and the author of Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work. Drew has worked with more than 35,000 people at over 250 organizations, including Microsoft, the FBI, and the International Association of Canine Professionals. He has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fast Company; and his TEDx talk has been viewed more than 4 million times. He loves the color orange, is obsessed with chocolate, and can solve a Rubiks Cub (but it takes like 7 minutes). For more information, please visit, and connect on Twitter @drewtarvin as well as on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.

This article contains excerpts from Andrew’s book Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work.

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