Why humour is an underrated tool in change communication
12 March 2021
From a risk/reward perspective, there is a huge upside to using humour in change communication. However, it needs to be used carefully and in moderate quantities. Here, we will dive into a few guidelines which will increase your odds of striking the right balance between eliciting a chuckle and going down in flames.
“A priest, a rabbi and a nun walk into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘What is this, a joke?’”
You might consider it a bit misplaced with such an intro to an article about change communication in a corporate environment. After all, we are professionals here, right? This is not the place to fool around. Actually, you’d be more right than you think. Because when it comes to corporate communication, humour is criminally underutilised. Many organisations and leaders shy away from using humour in their internal communication. They avoid it for fear of insulting anyone or appearing unprofessional. Some leaders also harbour a concern that the use of humour could be perceived as neglecting the impact a certain change will have on their teams.
It goes without saying that humour, like pepper, is an ingredient to be used carefully and in moderate quantities. Not all projects are born to elicit laughter. But then again, not all projects are born to be communicated as if they were tax audits or re-enactments of a script that we have seen a thousand times before.
For reasons detailed below, humour has a huge upside from a risk/reward perspective.
Humour creates a safe space
First of all, research shows that humour can create a safe space. When we use humour to introduce an IT implementation, a new strategy or new ways of working, we defuse the tensions that might be associated with it. Whether a demanding change project or a personal conflict, using humour can help you reframe the process in a positive way and open the door for employees to participate constructively.
“People who laugh in response to a conflict tend to shift from convergent thinking where they can see only one solution to divergent thinking where multiple ideas are considered.” Michael Kerr, Humor at Work1
An additional benefit of incorporating humour in your communication is that it contributes to making it legitimate to ask questions which employees might otherwise avoid for fear of appearing ignorant. If the leader or “the project” is the first to admit to not having all the answers or to struggling with consultant-driven buzzwords, then it is also ok for employees to wonder. On a deeper level, this builds credibility around the project and trust in the leaders who front it.
Laughing helps you remember
Secondly, a common misconception in corporate communication is the notion that facts and figures tell the story when we know that in fact it is the story that tells the story. As human beings, we make sense of information by organising it in narratives. In the struggle for our brains’ attention, factual statements are like smoke rings – we might notice them momentarily, but they quickly fade.
Rather, one thing that helps us remember a story is humour. When we are amused by something, dopamine hormones are released in our brains, which gives us an emotional sense of connectedness and positivity.2 The emotional reaction stands out in our memory and helps us remember messages a lot better than those rational arguments about increased productivity, competitive advantages and agile decision-making.
Humour is team building
Finally, using humour in how you frame and communicate around your project can pave the way for a sense of community and collaborative spirit. Having a great sense of humour is one of the traits we value most in humans. Studies show that the same is true when employees are asked what they find to be the most desirable trait in leaders.3 And the author of this article will argue that the same holds true for projects in the sense that humour creates an environment that you like to be associated with and contribute to.
Humour creates a bond. It is a shared experience. A feeling that we have something together which is unique and honest. Like winking at each other across the hall. Leveraged in the right way, this is a powerful driver in motivating people to adopt new behaviour.
Of course, all of the above hinges upon your ability to communicate in a way that makes people laugh rather than cringe. Applying humour to your messaging does not in itself guarantee that it has the desired effect. We all know the guy at the dinner party who tries a bit too hard and ends up leaving an awkward impression.
Five ways to use humour effectively
Like love, there is no exact recipe for humour. Not even in the corporate world. Any comedian will tell you that a good joke is as much about timing as it is about content. But there are a few guidelines which will increase your odds of striking the right balance between eliciting a chuckle and going down in flames.
1. Keep the balance
There is something liberating and disarming in being able to laugh about something that can appear intimidating. But as a communication tool, humour can never stand alone. There is a fine line between taking the lid off anxiety and skating over the necessary conversations. Therefore, always make sure you supply your organisation with solid information about the changes taking place as a counterweight to the light-hearted elements.
2. Call out the elephant in the room
With every change, there is anxiety in some shape or form. Maybe new skills are required, new team dynamics appear, or change fatigue has set in. These are all insights that can serve as powerful sources of humour and irony. You are better off addressing these barriers than ignoring them. And doing it with a tongue-in-cheek approach should help defuse some of the tension. In their book The Humor Code, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner refer to this concept of balancing something that is “wrong or unsettling” with something that at the same time feels “safe and acceptable” as “benign violation".4
3. Poke fun at the clichés
The corporate world is riddled with clichés, arcane rituals and theatrical gestures. Consider the notion that management always holds all the answers. Even if we like to think so, this is rarely the case. In their book Humor, Seriously, Stanford professors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas use the example of former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo who always had a team member accompany him on stage when presenting the latest strategy. The role of the team member was basically to comment and poke fun at the CEO in front of the crowd to remove any air of pomp and self-importance.
4. Laugh with your audience, not at them
Granted, it is the oldest piece of advice in the book, but it bears repeating. Because calling out elephants and clichés is more like precision surgery than chopping meat – the fine nuances make all the difference. Take care to position any humour in a way that does not make fun of people’s feelings but rather channels the jabs towards the corporate idiosyncrasies we all recognise. One way to do this is by introducing a character that personifies the change – the insolent consultant or the artsy film-maker.
5. Never punch down
And building on the point above, make sure to never “punch down” when you parody a situation or a group of people. To facilitate the psychological safety and sense of togetherness, you must work to humanise those in power. Consider having members of leadership explain certain terminology or strategic objectives associated with the change they want to implement and then create a highlight reel of the many awkward silences and inevitable slips of the tongue. If you use this at the beginning of a project, it can be an incredibly efficient way to position the change as something that is difficult for everyone involved and position leadership as self-reflective and empathetic.
And remember, it takes courage to apply humour in an environment that is traditionally buttoned up. However, you can find comfort in the fact that even somewhat clumsy attempts at humour – also known as “dad jokes” are proven to have a positive effect on your audience.5 So start considering humour a serious member of your change communication toolbox. No shame in your project being the laughing stock of the organisation.
By the way, what happened to all the cyber security consultants? They ransomware.
1 10 Reasons Why Humor is a Key To Success at Work, Jacquelyn Smith, Forbes, 2013.
2 Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, 2021.
3 10 Reasons Why Humor is a Key To Success at Work, Jacquelyn Smith, Forbes, 2013.
4 The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner.
5 Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, 2021.