That joke isn’t funny anymore (in fact it never was)

Ricky Gervais knew what he was doing when he created the character of David Brent in The Office as both a manager and a wannabe comedian, not always in that order. Over the years, I’ve worked with many senior managers who felt they had a talent for humour, who saw themselves as being basically ‘a pretty funny kind of guy’. Often this ‘talent’ emerged alongside their professional success. Rather than having been the funny kid in the classroom, (a time when the individual was probably considered slightly earnest and serious), their sense of humour surfaced as they found themselves managing increasingly large teams and needing to address even larger audiences. I use the phrase ‘funny guy’ advisedly, because these senior managers with comedic ambitions are usually men. By contrast, I’ve met very few female senior managers who wanted to be thought of as ‘funny’. In my experience, women tend to be wary of anything that prevents them from being taken seriously.

The sad fact of course is that funny senior managers are rarely very funny. But who will tell them? As the meeting rooms and conference venues echo with the sound of obsequious laughter, who is brave enough to say that the Emperor has no clothes? That his punchlines have no punch, that his gags make us gag? Easier just to laugh along with a big, shit-eating smile on your face.

So why do so many male senior managers want to be funny?  Does it stem from a desire to be popular, which in turn perhaps derives from a basic insecurity?  Does it relate to the same inner compulsions that drive certain people to the top of their organisations, while other (less funny) people are happy to stay in the audience?  I’m not qualified to judge on these matters, but I hope that some readers with a background in psychology will possibly feel inspired to offer their opinions in the comments section below!

As a communications consultant, my standard advice to any leader who wants to tell jokes is to avoid the urge. Simply, there is no upside. If people laugh at your jokes, it’s because of who you are, rather than the intrinsic value of your material. If they fail to laugh, it will throw you off balance and you may struggle to regain it. So many times, I’ve seen leaders panic when their audience misses a laughter cue, to the detriment of their communication. Instead of focusing on the key messages they need to land, they start to chase the laughs with increasing desperation. I cringe just thinking about it.

What’s the solution for a leader who wants to engage with his employees? It’s simple. Leave comedy to the professional comedians and focus on being yourself. You don’t need people to think you are funny, but you do want people to see that you are a real human being who can demonstrate human warmth. Tell stories that provide insights into why you think the way you do. Chances are they will like you for it and even if they don’t, they will appreciate your honesty. If people are moved to laughter, it is far more likely to be genuine.

As a postscript to this article, I remember a senior leader who thought of himself as a pretty funny kind of guy, whose team would laugh along uproariously at his sparkling wit. Then he lost his job and suddenly he wasn’t funny anymore. I can remember wondering what hit him hardest – no longer being top dog or having no one to laugh at his jokes? Sadly, I lost touch, so I never got to find out whether he rediscovered his comedic talent when he found a new job and a new audience elsewhere!