Career & Success

Class Takeaways — Humor is Serious Business

Five lessons in five minutes: Professor Jennifer Aaker and her team teach you how to make humor your superpower.

November 01, 2021

| by Kelsey Doyle

You probably intuitively know that a workplace that’s fun makes work more enjoyable. But is fun the enemy of a serious mission? It need not be, and in fact humor may have benefits you haven’t considered. Seriously.

Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, designed the course Humor: Serious Business to help students develop an appreciation of the role of humor in the workplace. In this video with lecturer Connor Diemand-Yauman, they show why humor is, as Bagdonas puts it, “an under-leveraged superpower in business.”


Jennifer Aaker: Hi, I’m Jennifer Aaker. I’m a behavioral scientist who spent my career studying what actually creates happiness in life versus what we think.

Naomi Bagdonas: I’m Naomi Bagdonas, I’m a corporate strategist who spent my career straddling the worlds of business and improve comedy, which was a wide straddle.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: And I’m Connor Diemand-Yauman, a social entrepreneur, and CEO, who spent my career building vibrant, productive, and humorous cultures.

Jennifer Aaker: Together we teach a class called Humor, Serious Business about the power of humor and leadership. It turns out humor is a teachable skill. And it’s one of the most under appreciated assets at work.

Naomi Bagdonas: Laughing changes the chemistry of our brains, making us more creative, bonded, and resilient.Humor is an elixir for trust and an antidote to arrogance, especially for today’s leaders.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: But here’s the problem. We’ve fallen off a humor cliff, and global study over a million people were asked a really simple question. Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday? Now as kids, we don’t have all the time.

And then, right when we enter the workforce, we stop laughing. And we don’t start laughing again until we retire.

Jennifer Aaker: Which is why it’s time to start taking humor seriously. Here are five key takeaways from our course. To help you climb back up the humor clef, have more humor at work and in your life.

Naomi Bagdonas: Our research reveals that there are four broad humor styles, and most people naturally fall into one or two of them. First is the stand-up. Stand-ups are bold, natural entertainers unafraid to ruffle a few feathers for a laugh. Next is the sweetheart. Sweethearts are earnest, understated, and tend to use humor that lightens the mood.

Snipers are edgy, sarcastic, nuanced, and masters of the unexpected dig. Finally, there’s the magnet. Magnets are expressive, charismatic, and not afraid to be silly. Once you know your style, you can start applying a few simple techniques from the world of comedy.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: To have more humor, start by making simple observations throughout the day of things you find interesting, odd, or amusing, like, since working from home, I only comb the front part of my hair, or I get really excited when people cancel plans – isn’t the best, or I wish there were a mute button in real life. Now, remember that this isn’t about becoming a comedian, it’s about looking at the world in a different way.

Our brains are wired to find what we set out to look for. So start looking for humor.

Jennifer Aaker: At work, it’s easy to be transactional, but small shifts can move us from transactional to human. As small as adding a lighthearted line at the end of your LinkedIn bio, or kicking off a meeting with your favorite Ted lasso clip.

Are you going to sign off your emails with “best?” Instead, try something like “yours heavily caffeinated”, or “let’s never speak of this again”, or sometimes I’m the best. Sometimes, you just gotta let people know.

Naomi Bagdonas: Humor can be risky, here are a few things we tell our students about how to de-risk your humor.

First, don’t ask, will this make me sound funny? Instead ask, how will this make other people feel? Which also means never punching down, that is making fun of someone of lower status. And be sure to check your distance. How close are you personally to what you’re making light, I can make fun of my mother but not Jennifer’s mother, who, by the way, I hear is a saint.

Jennifer Aaker: She is a saint.

Naomi Bagdonas: A lovely woman.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: It’s easy to believe that if you take your life or your mission seriously, the presence of humor betrays that mission. But leaders of all stripes, from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to NBA All Star Stephen Curry, to CEO Sara Blakely, tell a different story, that we can do serious things without taking ourselves too seriously. In fact, often we can do them better.

Jennifer Aaker: Our hope is that you start climbing back up the humor cliff. Get to know your humor style, mind your life for truth, make small shifts from transactional to human, practice safe sets, and make the choice to navigate your life on the precipice of a smile.

Naomi Bagdonas: In other words, start taking humor seriously.

Jennifer Aaker: Seriously

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Seriously.

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