June 18, 2018

Library Leaders Need to Get Humor Right | Leading from the Library

Steven BellLibrary leaders have their share of celebratory and difficult moments. Sometimes it seems like the bad news outweighs the good, and that’s when leaders may use humor to cope with organizational stress. Those who do humor well know how to get it right.

In between opportunities for celebration, library leaders inevitably have moments when things go badly. Some are entirely unexpected, like when a corporation with questionable motives suddenly acquires a friendly, trusted vendor. Other times it is simply a matter of waiting for the axe to fall: for example, when budget cuts are on the horizon for our financially struggling institution. Knowing how to cope in these situations, to keep staff morale from plummeting, is the type of thing leaders learn from experience. What’s rarely learned from books, leadership programs, or even other leaders who are good at it, is the effective use of workplace humor. Properly applied, the ability to make colleagues laugh or draw on the lighthearted aspect of any situation is of inestimable value.

Delicate balance

If employees were asked if they’d rather work for a leader with a good sense of humor or one without, or worse, a sourpuss, you know what the answer would be. SmartBrief on Leadership did ask its 210,000 readers. Nearly half of the respondents said humor was more than just a desirable quality, it was critical for success. Another 43 percent indicated that humor was a core leadership trait. The reasons are obvious. Leaders who bring humor to a tense situation alleviate stress, make tedious meetings more enjoyable, and communicate that we can occasionally take ourselves less seriously—or even be downright silly. Here’s the catch: As much as employees enjoy a leader with a sense of humor, they unequivocally dread the ones whose attempts at humor consistently fail. All leaders desire to attain these valued core traits, but getting humor wrong is downright dangerous. If it offends, is poorly timed, or comes at someone else’s expense, at a minimum it could erode trust and at worst could signal the start of the end.

Humor theory

Given the precariousness of leadership humor, what’s the best way to incorporate it into our skill set with the wisdom to apply it judiciously? It’s a difficult trick to pull off because a good laugh often comes spontaneously. Preparation is rarely possible. It just happens. If it’s the right time and situation, telling a joke could actually work. The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner seeks to assemble a unified theory of humor by studying what’s funny across cultures and settings. They advise leaders to aim for more “aha” than “ha-ha.” It’s painful when leaders try too hard for laughs. But a clever remark or observation at the right moment, demonstrating keen wit, can work well. They conclude that having a good sense of humor is the ability to achieve “benign violation.” That means provoking laughter when something is not quite right or unsettling, but is also acceptable or safe. Easy, right?

Breaking the tension

Let’s say the library director has some bad news to share in a staff meeting. A budget cut requires a ten percent reduction of the journal collection. That’s hard on community members and requires staff to take on additional work of a painful nature. They may worry it is a sign of worse things to come. But if the leader says “At least I can finally stop evading that professor who insists we subscribe to a 14th century Urdu poetry journal,” it could break a tense mood and help colleagues realize that despite a disappointing turn of events, together they will make it through the crisis. The statement may violate a professional ethic concerning access to information, but it safely pokes fun at a situation the staff knows well. It also conforms to McGraw and Warner’s rules for good workplace humor: It’s an inside joke on a shared viewpoint; the staff get it. There’s a simplicity to it, and it takes on a situation about which everyone is worried. There’s even a bit of self-deprecation on the part of the director, which always helps make leadership humor safer.

Spread the Opportunities

Rather than attempt the risky task of personally bringing humor to the workplace, some leaders opt for creating an environment where there are more opportunities for laughter and lighthearted fun. Leaders could take a lesson from Zappo’s, the “We Deliver Happiness” people, where there is actually a Chief Happiness Officer. For leaders who want to add more humor to their repertoire, perhaps the best advice is to stick to the self-deprecating brand. Want to make fun of something to break up the serious mood? Make fun of yourself. According to the humorist Joel Stein’s article “Humor is Serious Business,” self-deprecation humanizes leaders and creates connections with employees. For leaders, humor has value, but proceed with caution. If you remember only one thing about leadership humor, keep in mind something Stein brings to our attention: Don Rickles never held an office job.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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