Laugh more, lead better

Humor “is a superpower in business, now more than ever,” says Naomi Bagdonas, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In the class she leads with co-lecturer Connor Diemand-Yauman, a member of McKinsey’s Consortium for Learning Innovation, the duo amuse and introduce students to the science and benefits of leading with laughter in business settings and a new world of remote interactions. Here’s a sample of their zany shtick. Roll the tape or read the transcript below.

Video transcript

Naomi Bagdonas: Hi, I’m Naomi.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: And I’m lonely.

Naomi Bagdonas: Oh, I know you’re lonely, but your name is Connor. And you’re not alone in feeling lonely. With the shift to remote work, many of us have never felt further apart from our colleagues, families, and gyms.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: OK, let’s try that again. Hi there. I’m Connor Diemand-Yauman.

Naomi Bagdonas: And I’m Naomi Bagdonas.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: And we’re lecturers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business with the inimitable Dr. Jennifer Aaker, where we teach about the intersection of humor, business, and leadership.

Naomi Bagdonas: We’ve also launched an online course called Remotely Humorous, which is focused on cultivating more productive, connected, and joyful cultures in remote teams. And we recently released a bestselling book on the topic called Humor, Seriously. We’re really into this stuff.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Yeah, we’re kind of obsessed with this, actually. We do a lot of journaling on this topic.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yep. A lot of journaling. Connor does a lot of journaling.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Yeah.

Naomi Bagdonas: Using notebook after notebook.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Pages and pages. Sometimes I put some blood on the pages. There’s a lock of Naomi’s hair.

Naomi Bagdonas: For authenticity, he says, but it’s very weird.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: It’s part of my process. So, you get it, we’re kind of obsessed with this topic of humor and leadership. And we’re so excited to be here today. We’ve worked with executives and teams across sectors, helping them figure out how to bring more humor and levity to their organizations and teams, which has proven to be far more lucrative than our animal onesie ribbon-dancing business.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yeah, that’s true. It turns out that our specific form of interpretive dance requires a lot more interpretation from the audience.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Yeah. I also thought this was too much. They [the audience] thought that was a lot. That move they thought was—they didn’t know how to interpret.

Naomi Bagdonas: So today, we’re going to talk about humor and why it is a superpower in business, now more than ever.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Because we are living in a brave new world of work. The way we interact and collaborate with our fellow coworkers has changed dramatically.

Naomi Bagdonas: And in this context, it’s harder than ever to foster creativity, well-being, and connection in our teams, when we can’t even get together at cocktail parties and talk about that killer two by two we just made this week.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Or where you used your Marriott points last month or looked for that awful non sequitur just so you can humble brag about your fancy airline status with that other bigwig executive you really want to impress. By the way, I’m Premier 1K, United. I don’t know if you knew that, Naomi.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yeah, I did, actually. And I’m Premier 1K also, on multiple airlines, if not all airlines.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Oh, well, Premier 1K Platinum. So it’s actually like there’s this elite one that I didn’t tell you about.

Naomi Bagdonas: Yeah, it’s interesting, I think once you get to private jet status, they stop, like, counting it, because it’s like, wah-wah, we get it, you’re very important.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Yeah. I own a private jet.

Naomi Bagdonas: Well, OK.

Naomi Bagdonas: In this new world of remote work, where we rarely see our colleagues in person—or from the waist down—research reveals that humor is one of the most powerful forces an organization has for building genuine connection, well-being, and intellectual safety among our colleagues.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: But don’t take our word for it. Take science’s word for it. Let’s dive into the neuroscience of laughter. And we’d love to share a short clip on this very topic. Naomi, were we able to book the two renowned speakers for this?

Naomi Bagdonas: We were. World experts. I mean, far more decorated and fabulous to listen to than us.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Oh my gosh, I’m so glad. We had Oprah and Prince Harry as a backup. I cannot believe we booked these two.

Naomi Bagdonas: I can’t, either. Brace yourself. Let’s roll the clip.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Roll the clip.

The neuroscience of laughter

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Let’s talk cocktails.

Naomi Bagdonas: Brain cocktails, that is. When we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of hormones.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: These hormones make us feel happier, less stressed, slightly euphoric, and more trusting.

Naomi Bagdonas: If only I could give oxytocin to my cat. He won’t come near me.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: This means that when we laugh with colleagues, we’re not just having fun, we’re serving up a powerful hormone cocktail that can literally change their—and our—brain chemistry, on the spot. Research shows that laughing has unparalleled effects on our neurochemistry and behaviors. It changes the chemistry of your brain to make you more primed for connection, more creative and resourceful, and more resilient to stress.

Naomi Bagdonas: As one example, oxytocin prompts our brains to create emotional bonds, to trust each other more. This explains why oxytocin is also released when people have sex and when mothers give birth, both moments when, evolutionarily speaking, we benefit from feelings of closeness and trust with the person involved, even if the relationship is brand-new.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Which reminds me of a riddle my mom used to tell me as a kid.

Naomi Bagdonas: Oh, yeah? What is it?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: What do the following three things have in common?

Naomi Bagdonas: OK.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: People having sex, people giving birth, and people laughing with their colleagues over Zoom.

Naomi Bagdonas: Your mom used to tell you this?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Everyone’s building trust, and no one’s wearing pants.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Humor also impacts our memories by flooding our reward centers with dopamine. Humor makes us more engaged in the moment and helps us remember more content after the fact. In one study, researchers found that people who watched a humorous film clip before taking a short-term memory test recalled more than twice as much information as those in a control group.

Naomi Bagdonas: Which means if you’re not saying something humorous, you better be saying it twice as many times. Ayo!

Naomi Bagdonas: Which means, if you’re not saying something humorous, you better be saying it twice as many times. Ayo!

Connor Diemand-Yauman: And no one wants that.

Naomi Bagdonas: These are just a few of humor’s many benefits, which can come in handy when giving instructions, keeping calm under a deadline, or confusing bullies long enough to escape.

Naomi Bagdonas: The important thing to remember is that we’re hardwired to respond to humor in ways that benefit us and our team cultures.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: And think about the impact of this neurochemical alchemy on virtual teams. Remotely, we share far fewer experiences and common points of reference, but when we laugh together, our brains are firing with the same hormones at the same time, cuing us to trust each other more and make those two-dimensional interactions more memorable.

Naomi Bagdonas: The power of experiencing the same burst of bonding, pleasurable hormones, even from hundreds or thousands of miles away, is impossible to overstate.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: And to think, these powerful experiences are all thanks to the brain cocktail that laughter serves up.

Naomi Bagdonas: And that’s a cocktail you can drink before noon.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Oh, you kill me.

Naomi Bagdonas: Come on, stop it, come on.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: It’s too much.

Naomi Bagdonas: Come on, I could do more.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: I love teaching with you.

Naomi Bagdonas: I love teaching. I love teaching. It’s my favorite thing.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Wow. They did it again.

Naomi Bagdonas: Incredible.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: They did it again.

Naomi Bagdonas: Riveting.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: They said it couldn’t be done.

Naomi Bagdonas: No.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: And they did it.

Naomi Bagdonas: And they did it. That is absolutely incredible. And these shifts in our brain that we just heard from those renowned experts change not just how we see ourselves and how we behave but also how other people see us, and how they behave. Leaders with a sense of humor are seen as 27 percent more motivating and admired. Their employees are 15 percent more engaged. Their teams are more than twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: So, the point is—and this is why we work with so many executives on humor in leadership—is that humor isn’t just for fun, although it is a lot of fun. But it’s also a critical leadership skill, like communication, self-awareness, and hiding the fact that you’re multitasking while watching this video. Naomi?

Naomi Bagdonas: What?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Well, that’s all the time that we have today. We’re so sorry to have to wrap this up. But as you return to the daily grind of this bizarre new normal that we’re swimming in right now, we hope you’ll keep in mind just these three things. First, it’s time to become remotely humorous. Laughter impacts our brains and our behaviors in profound ways, and it’s more valuable than ever in this new world of remote work. So start living your life on the precipice of a smile.

Naomi Bagdonas: Second, say yes. Notice your colleagues’ small offers of levity, and accept them. Build on them.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: And finally, actively cultivate your rituals and your stories. Create new rituals that help you stay connected and drive levity at your organization, even when you’re remote. And tell your companies’ stories far and wide.

Naomi Bagdonas: Thanks for watching. And until next time—

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Keep it real—

Naomi Bagdonas: —keep it light.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: —and keep finding your reason to smile. Bye.

Naomi Bagdonas: Bye.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: See ya.

Naomi Bagdonas: Bye bye now.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: See you soon. Thanks for coming.

Naomi Bagdonas: Call soon. Also call your mother.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Call your mother. How long has it been? It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Naomi Bagdonas: It’s been a while. And she’s called multiple times.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: You know how much she’s sacrificed for you, right?

Naomi Bagdonas: Oh, don’t get me started on your mother’s sacrifice.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Do you know what your mother did for you?

Naomi Bagdonas: Is it off? Are they still here?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: I don’t know. How do you cut this thing?

Naomi Bagdonas: I don’t know.

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Cut it. Cut it now.

Naomi Bagdonas: Can the editors cut it?

Connor Diemand-Yauman: Editors, editors, help us! Help!

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