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Three Ways To Lead With Trust And Humor

My goal in life is to make work fun, and I believe all leaders can do the same. But throughout my time as a leader in an organization that provides workshops for making the workplace more fun, I've found humor often requires a base layer of trust. So, I've created three simple everyday activities you can incorporate in your own organization.

Here's why: Employee engagement has been a growing concern in an increasingly mobile and diverse workforce. "Engagement" has been considered a key factor for business success and has been associated with organizational performance, productivity and more. However, according to Gallup's 2017 State of the Global Workplace report (registration required), "85% of employees worldwide are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their job."

A disengaged workforce can result in burnout, lower productivity and poorer organizational performance. I've observed a variety of approaches to solving an engagement problem, such as providing more breaks to employees or defining clear goals. These solutions can help, but in my experience, they aren't always the most effective. From my perspective, increasing vertical trust is essential to improving engagement.

When leaders create a level of trust with their employees, they can enable behavioral engagement. If you take a quick look at the items Gallup includes in the employee engagement survey, it becomes increasingly clear how important vertical trust really is. A few of the survey items include:

• Overall job satisfaction and knowing what is expected of you

• Having the proper resources and opportunity to do your best

• Receiving recognition and feeling that your boss cares about you and your opinions

• Having the choice to continue your development and growth through learning

• Feeling connected to the mission and purpose of the organization

• Making progress on your work objectives and being committed to quality

Almost all of these engagement-related items are impacted by the relationship you have with your boss. As a leadership psychologist and professor, I examine the interactions between leaders and those they lead while looking for the most impactful trust-building behaviors. My job is then to educate leaders through leadership courses, training workshops and team-building events on how to build social trust at work.

Through my recent doctoral research, I found trust can be built through the regular use of humor between leaders and their employees. Additional research underscores the value of incorporating fun in the workplace. A recent study found that having fun at work can benefit employees' creative and resourceful ways of thinking. Another study from 2009 discovered that younger workers place significant importance on workplace fun. As younger generations continue to comprise more of the U.S. labor force, I believe these findings show that leaders should consider adapting to these shifts.

Understanding the role of humor as a resource and strategic business tool in management and leadership becomes especially relevant when considering the shifting demographics toward a younger and more diverse labor force and workers’ increasing demand for more creativity and collaboration on a daily basis.

Incorporating Humor In The Workplace

When it comes to using humor at work, you’d probably think of jokes and stories as the key mechanism. These can be helpful, but they aren't always as reliable as group humor activities, such as creative brainstorming. The other thing about humor is that a base layer of foundational trust is necessary.

I've developed three activities you can host in your organization that help you sequentially build trust with employees — and transform that trust into humor. (Please note that these also work at home, with new friends and even strangers.)

1. In your next team or work meeting, have everyone on your team partner up and take turns sharing one another's happiest personal and professional moments. As the listener, do not interrupt. Make your partner feel special and important by paying close attention as they share their stories. This helps build trust between the pairs.

2. Building on those deeper connections you just experienced, shift to asking questions about future-related items. For example, “What is your dream job, and how does that relate to your values and goals?” Or, “What ideas do you have about your ideal world?” By asking about motivations, passions and ideas, you’re developing fun ways to learn more about the other person.

3. Lastly, engage in group humor activities that activate your spontaneity and creativity in a fun way. I learned a few of these activities at improv theatre; they last about 10 minutes and can be conducted in groups of two, four or even 10. For example, in small groups, you could explore how you’d save the world from a tyrannosaurus rex using only large apples and a gigantic bottle of tanning lotion. This activity might seem silly, but in fact, divergent thinking about something like saving the planet from dinosaurs gives people the opportunity to experiment and try out things in an inconsequential way. Without a penalizing failure, employees will be more apt to contribute creatively in future conversations as a result.

I believe humor can have a number of benefits on an organization. Practice these three trust-building behaviors, and you’ll be able to bring it into your own company. A quote famously attributed to comedian Victor Borge sums it up well: "Humor is the shortest distance between two people."

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