I was more than taken aback by a Wall Street Journal opinion piece headlined "The Power of the Presidential Tweet" and authored by none other than Scott Adams, the renowned creator of the Dilbert cartoon series. I won't regale you with Adams's faulty logic, but he believes President Trump's tweets are both funny and written strategically to accomplish a desired end result.
But, Adams is right about one thing: humor is becoming an increasingly powerful tool in the arsenal of more and more executives. Ninety-eight percent of 700 CEOs interviewed by Hodge Cronin and Associates said they prefer job candidates with a sense of humor. And, 84 percent think people with a sense of humor do better at work.
When it's used correctly by leaders of any sized company, humor can have immediate and profoundly positive effects. But, humor is NOT for every executive. It has to already be ingrained in the organization's DNA and the executive herself must already be known by stakeholder audiences for her witticisms.
A recent case in point is Dick Costolo who, a full year before becoming CEO of Twitter, wrote: "First day as COO at Twitter tomorrow. Task #1: Undermining CEO, consolidate power." Now, that's not only laugh out loud funny, it tells me two key things about Costolo:
- He's a funny guy who doesn't take himself too seriously
- He embraces self-deprecating humor. The latter is critical since it displays humanity, vulnerability and likability.
Leadership humor also has a way of leveling the playing field. If an hourly employee sees his CEO takes the time to poke fun at herself, it makes the CEO seem far more approachable. That's critical in a business world in which the wants and needs of employees are central to attracting, and maintaining, a top notch workforce.
While it's questionable at best to use humor when responding to a particularly provocative Trump tweet, Australian CEO Mike Cannon-Brooke of Atlassian, was able to pull it off with this response to the West Wing's latest proclamation about illegal immigration: "To use an Australian-ism, 'it's just #@!%ing wrong.'"
And kudos to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who responded to the wrath of the President via Twitter with "Finally trashed by @realDonaldTrump. Will still reserve him a seat on the Blue Origin rocket. #sendDonaldtospace."
Humor can also help an organization self-select customers, vendors and even employees. We've been told by countless clients over the years that they selected us in a tightly contested RFP simply because they enjoyed spending time with our team and could see their use of comedy as a clear differentiator.
Comedy is being used by more and more marketers to differentiate themselves in a highly-cluttered marketplace. Aside from the pharmaceutical industrial (whose products' side effects are unintentionally funny), many serious businesses use humor to sell. Just check out any State Farm or Allstate TV spot and you'll see what I mean. Humor works because it stimulates endorphins in the brain and makes the viewer temporarily "fall in love" with the advertiser. He won't stay in love, but the odds are substantially increased he will include the marketer who made him laugh the next time he's shopping for insurance.
I'm a big believer in the power of comedy in business. That's why, after two years of testing my own material on stage, I mandated stand-up and improvisational humor be baked into our management development program. Today, some 10 years later, we receive hundreds upon hundreds of applications from top-notch college applicants simply because we provide stand-up training. And, the training itself has knocked down barriers that may have previously existed. It's brought our people closer together and, critically, created a culture that was named New York's best by Crain's New York Business.
Dilbert's a funny guy. It's too bad his creator mistakes venom-laced Tweets for strategically-crafted witticisms. It's almost enough to make me want to downsize the cartoon character and place him in an even smaller cube.