Why should founders add humour to their agendas? ‘Humor, Seriously’ authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas explain

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas appeared in a recent episode of Prime Venture Podcast to introduce their book ‘Humor, Seriously’ and talk about the importance of spreading humour in the workplace. They also shared tips about humour styles, reading the audience, making people feel valued and more.
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Authors of workplace humour book ‘Humor, Seriously’, Naomi Bagdonas and Jennifer Aaker have an interesting back story to how they came upon the idea for the book.

Naomi was pursuing improv comedy on weekend nights alongside her full-time career in designing executive sessions for business teams, and Jennifer, a behavioural scientist, was a General Atlantic Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. When Naomi joined Stanford later and visited one of Jennifer’s classes as a guest lecturer, the latter was intrigued with the response Naomi received for her humour-laden lecture. The duo soon started collaborating, and found that “leaders with a good sense of humour are seen as 27 percent more motivating and admired, and their teams are more bonded and creative.”

They penned down their cumulative research in their recently published book ‘Humor, Seriously’, and now advise founders and CEOs they meet to intentionally add humour into their agendas.

Top corporate leaders bond using humour

Talking about the book in a recent episode of Prime Venture Podcast with host Sanjay Swami, Naomi began by recounting the story of a CEO who wanted to ease his executives into the first ever virtual meeting during the pandemic. “People were exhausted. They were scared. And Connor wanted to show care and reassurance but not sure how. So, during the session, Connor spoke and passed the baton to someone else but intentionally left the screen share on. He left the PowerPoint window, fired up Google and typed ‘things inspirational CEOs say during hard times’. Everyone had a laugh and the tension in the meeting disappeared.”

Jennifer also narrates the example of Dick Costolo, ex-CEO of Twitter, who believed that “when you are playing at high-status levels, the goal here is just to disarm.” During conferences, Dick would invite his team members to the stage and ask them to make fun of him. “Self-deprecation is powerful,” remarks Jennifer. The conversation also veered to Google’s defining ‘Thank God It’s Friday’ sessions, famous for its free-for-alls just to drive engagement, which was brought to a standstill in 2019.

Different humour styles

Jennifer emphasises that before people can classify themselves into humour categories, people need to remember that “being humorous is not the same thing as being funny”. She then goes on to explain the four different humour types that their collective research has yielded over the past few months.

The first is called the Stand Up and people in this category are bold, unafraid, and good at roasting others. Second, the Sweetheart, and these people are honest and understated. The third type is called the Sniper, who uses humour as a form of intimacy. And the fourth group is called the Magnet, who are generally expressive and charismatic.

Engaging people in the virtual world

“Don’t try to be funny, try to be more human,” suggests Naomi. She acknowledges that while it is human to jump right into important topics during virtual meetings, showing curiosity about the personal lives of people actually warms up the audience for the conversation later. Just asking about how everyone's weekend was or what's there in people’s refrigerators can generate laughter, and the meetings can become more productive, she says.

And how can one ensure not to become too rigid while trying to infuse humour into the conversation? To this, Jennifer says the process of becoming naturally humourous is gradual and progressive. “[And] the first step is just understanding what you find to be humorous and embracing that more authentic sense of humour,” she reveals. She adds that understanding the different styles comes next along with learning the arts of misdirection and callback.

Integrating humour into startups

Naomi explains that for founders who are constantly juggling important matters and sprinting to grow fast, company culture tends to take a backseat as they develop a bias towards important things. But some of the greatest ideas come out during play and thus, it is necessary that founders consciously integrate humour and play into their business agendas. Here, Jennifer and Naomi share the example of the Elders Foundation, where members came up with the founding story during one of their relaxing activities.

To hear more about this, listen to the podcast here

Time stamps:

01:00 - Humour at the Workplace - Why & How

11:35 - Know your Humor Style: Standup, Sweetheart, Sniper, Magnet

23:00 - The Core of Humor: Truth and Misdirection

28:00 - “People want to be valued members on a winning team”

34:50 - Why your Agenda should be Half work and Half play

Edited by Anju Narayanan