I am hysterically funny. Or at least my friends think so. I love to make people laugh and I come from funny people—in fact, my wife married me partly because of how funny I am.
Ever since I was promoted to senior management, though, it is as though everyone has lost their sense of humor. One of my direct reports went around me to my boss to complain about a joke I cracked in a staff meeting.
My boss told me I need to cut it out. Humor is such an essential part of who I am that I just don’t know what to do. I really like my job and I am good at it, but when I think about trying to shut down this part of me, I feel a real sense of loss.
—Funny but Sad
Boy, can I relate to this one. One of the finest moments in life is when I meet someone new and I crack wise and they say, “You’re funny.” “Oh yes,” I say, “I’m hilarious.” It catches up with me sometimes, though. After a talk once, someone wrote on my evaluation She seems to want to be doing standup comedy. And they didn’t mean it in a good way. So, so sad.
Humor is a tricky thing; it is remarkable, really, how often it comes up as a problem for my clients. One man’s hilarity might leave another befuddled—or, as in your case, offended. My short answer is this: as a person in a senior position, you really are going to have to cut it out. I would challenge you to allow yourself to be funny only under these 3 conditions:
- You have vetted your audience for what is off limits.
- You never use sarcasm—which, as English playwright Oscar Wilde remarked, “is the lowest form of wit.” Sarcasm is easy and often comes off as snarky and mean.
- You never make a joke at any else’s expense, including your own. When you diminish others who are not present, it causes people to wonder whether you are making fun of them when they are not in the room. And even if it feels safe, self deprecation simply is not effective in a leader.
Part of being a leader is that you actually have to be appropriate, keeping all communication clear and easy for all types of people to understand. Leave the humor at home—make your wife howl with laughter and be the life of the party with your friends. You can give me a call anytime and I promise to laugh. Just clean it up at work, and I will try to do the same. Let me know how it goes.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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