Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas: Why good humor makes for good business Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas teach a class at Stanford's business school called 'Humor: Serious Business.' They say humor is vastly undervalued in business and is key to good leadership.

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas: Why good humor makes for good business

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

So so far, computers can't use humor on command. But let's be honest. Many humans can't, either. Sometimes humor needs to be taught.

NAOMI BAGDONAS: Yeah. It's not about being funny. It's just about having this mindset of levity.

ZOMORODI: And levity can be especially useful in tough times at work.

BAGDONAS: So it's March 2020. Connor Deimand-Yauman is the co-CEO of a large nonprofit, and his organization has just moved to being fully remote.

ZOMORODI: This is Naomi Bagdonas. She consults with CEOs like Connor, who was leading his first virtual meeting.

BAGDONAS: So all of the employees are two-inch faces on a screen. And this is a really new thing for this entire culture. People are exhausted. They're scared. It's a really tense time. Connor wants to be inspiring. He wants to show care, but he's not quite sure how. So he's presenting, and he's saying the remarks that he had prepared. And he's having that moment that we've probably all had when we're reading prepared remarks where we realize they are completely falling flat. And especially in this moment, he realizes he's just not saying the right things. So he makes a split-second decision.

ZOMORODI: Connor ends his remarks, but he intentionally continues to share his screen.

BAGDONAS: The entire organization watches, terrified, as Connor opens up a Google search and types in, things inspirational CEOs say during hard times, and everyone loses it. He had a couple people reach out to him and say it was the first time since the start of the pandemic, since all going to remote work that they had seen a screen full of smiles.

ZOMORODI: Laughter can keep a crucial moment from turning into a crisis. As a business consultant, that's what Naomi teaches her clients. It's also what she teaches her students.

BAGDONAS: I am a lecturer at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, the co-author of "Humor Seriously" with Jennifer Aaker.

ZOMORODI: That's Jennifer Aaker, the behavioural psychologist.

JENNIFER AAKER: I'm an academic. I'm also a mom, really good friend.

ZOMORODI: Together, she and Naomi have been studying how humor can be a tool in business, like that moment when Connor poked fun at himself in front of his entire staff.

AAKER: So when he does this very simple thing, it has such a significant set of benefits. No. 1, we know from the research that leaders with a sense of humor, any sense of humor - the bar is so low, but they tend to be somewhere between 25 and 30% more motivating and admired. And then teams that report to leaders like Connor - they are more engaged and satisfied at work, are also more creative. And if you think about this, too, it's free. We're living in a time right now where there's such dramatic distrust and that small, easy, free thing that Connor did enabled him to really become the leader that he wanted to be in this moment that was really hard.

ZOMORODI: In a minute, we visit Jennifer and Naomi's classroom and hear what it sounds like to practice making people laugh. On the show today, Humor Us. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, Humor Us. We were just hearing from Naomi Bagdonas and Jennifer Aaker. They're authors of the book "Humor, Seriously," and they teach a class at Stanford Business School called Humor, Serious Business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: So this is a picture of me when I was 5. Cute, right? Yeah, no, that girl was a power-hungry little monster...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: ...Chomping at the bit to be a CEO.

BAGDONAS: We take students all the way from understanding the behavioral science of humor to learning techniques from comedians for finding more humor in their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: And I turn, and I'm like, Austin, can you drive? And he, like, wakes up for a second. He yawns. He's like, back pain's a state of mind, bro, and then goes back to sleep.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: Naomi and Jennifer believe humor is a teachable skill and something that their students need to practice in front of their peers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: You're all probably thinking, only an idiot would ever come back to school. Well, I'm back.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: I have to make a confession, which is that when I was like - heard about your class and saw your talk, I was like, who are these loser MBA students who have to take a class, how to be funny?

(LAUGHTER)

BAGDONAS: Oh, my gosh.

ZOMORODI: I want to try and understand. I guess I just thought, like, either you got it or you don't. Talk to me about this.

BAGDONAS: I would first and foremost like to say that our MBA students are so funny and so cool, not losers at all.

(LAUGHTER)

ZOMORODI: All right, noted.

BAGDONAS: But, you know, a lot of our students experience what I personally did as well, which is that we go to work, and then we bifurcate our lives. We think we have to be a certain version of ourselves at work to be seen as professional and successful, and we have to be serious all the time to be taken seriously, especially when we're junior in our careers. And we start to feel like we're leading a double life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAGDONAS: The research shows people are laughing much more on weekends than they are during the weekday. So part of this is helping our students tap into something that we all want more of. How do we create environments where joy just comes more easily? And the second thing is helping our students recognize that this isn't just about you being the creator of humor; it's about cultivating environments where humor can come from anywhere.

ZOMORODI: Naomi Bagdonas and Jennifer Aaker continue from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

AAKER: Here's the secret - don't look for what's funny; just notice what's true. We asked some of you what's true in your own lives, and here's a few things we heard. Since working from home, I only comb the front part of my hair.

BAGDONAS: (Laughter).

AAKER: I only like my own kids.

(LAUGHTER)

AAKER: There, I said it.

BAGDONAS: So this is not about becoming a comedian; this is about looking at the world in a different way. There's a psychological principle called the priming effect that says, in essence, we find what we choose to look for. So when we live our lives on the precipice of a smile, we shift how we interact with the world and, in turn, how it interacts back.

AAKER: It's also about being human, which should be easy because we are human. But at work, it's oftentimes harder than we think. In a recent survey, people were asked, what traits inspire trust in a leader? One of the top responses - speaks like a regular person. When work gets serious and life gets busy, we become transactional, and yet these small shifts are enough to move us from transactional to human.

ZOMORODI: You know, I remember when I started to relax at my first job because I started to feel more confident in my abilities (laughter), and my superiors being like, huh, you talk. You're interesting. You're kind of funny. And I was like, well, yeah, I didn't have anything to say before because I was scared I was going to do something wrong all the time. So how much of this having humor at the office really about when you have power and that you feel that you're - have permission to be yourself?

AAKER: Yes. Definitely, we find that as you increase in power and status in the organization, you do have more flexibility in using it. Now, self-deprecating humor is really interesting because it's one of those things that if you use it with lower levels of status, it can actually boomerang, and you land in ways that are maybe more insecure, whereas if you have higher status, people attribute you greater confidence, competence, and you seem more human.

BAGDONAS: Right.

AAKER: So that's one thing to note.

BAGDONAS: I'll give one quick example of that.

ZOMORODI: Please. Yeah.

BAGDONAS: Pretty early in my career, I was facilitating a team dynamics workshop for this executive team, and most of the people in the room were 15 to 20 years my senior, and most of them were men. So here I am, this sort of young woman. I've got my hair in a high bun to try and look older. I'm, like, wearing my best "Mad Men" outfit in my mid-20s.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BAGDONAS: And I have prepped so hard for this session. The most senior person in the room was a guy named Craig. Craig was posturing all session. He had his hands behind his head. He was disengaged. He just wasn't really in it. And so in the middle of my session, I was - like, literally mid-sentence, Craig cut me off, and he said, can you just cut to the part where you teach me how to make my teams do exactly what I want? And the room stiffened. Everyone looked at me to see what I would do. And without thinking, I sort of playfully shot back, that's a great question, Craig. You're actually thinking of the workshop that I run on mind control, and that one's next week. You're welcome to join that one. And I did not mean to say this. I had been doing improv on the side. I thought I was going to lose my job, basically. But the exact opposite happened. The room erupted in laughter, and then everyone turns back to Craig to see what he's going to do. Craig took his hands from behind his head. He was smiling for the first time all day, and he said word for word - I kid you not - I respect you. You can continue. I said, thank you, I was planning on it, and I went on. But it was this incredible moment. And by the way, Craig ended up becoming a real advocate of me. But it was this moment of status-matching, really.

ZOMORODI: Yes.

BAGDONAS: What I did was a really sharp sniper comment, and that, especially as a lower status person in the room, is what's going to gain you status. So I think it also speaks to this point of knowing whether you need a power move or a moment of connection or a moment of creativity or a moment of resilience.

ZOMORODI: OK, but there are risks, though, right? I mean, a sharp comment like that - it could fall flat, or, at the very worst, it could offend someone. What then?

BAGDONAS: Yeah. So I think there's a really important distinction here. There are different types of failure. We think that a humor fail is when we don't get a laugh. Actually, there's some awesome research to show that as long as our humor is still appropriate, then it will still increase people's perceptions of our confidence and have no meaningful impact on competence or status. So failing and getting crickets is actually not as bad as we think. Often the best thing to do is to just name it. Just recognizing that joke failed shows confidence and will often get a laugh of recognition. Now, if you fail and you offend someone, that's obviously a very different thing. But I think this doesn't have to be overcomplicated. The real thing to know is a humor fail is an empathy fail. And so understand, what did you miss, especially if you offended someone? What did you miss, and what can you learn from it? And then step three, make it right.

ZOMORODI: Jennifer, I wonder if you feel that humor has changed a lot over the past few years. I mean, what's funny to one generation or group of people is not to another. It's enough to scare a lot of folks into not venturing to make any jokes at all.

AAKER: Yes, so true. But, you know, the idea is, like, what is the distance? You know, how close are you to the thing you're making fun of? So instead of asking yourself, am I saying this next thing in order to be funny, ask yourself what is needed in that moment? Is it diffusion of tension, etc.? Humor is one of the best antidotes to arrogance because if anchored on the audience and reading the room, it has this real opportunity to uplift. But you need to take that perspective going in.

ZOMORODI: You know, I think some people listening will feel that they do all this intuitively. And maybe other folks, I'm sure, are listening very closely to your tips. But I want to know, like, what about your students? What is the hardest part of this class, would you say, for them?

BAGDONAS: Sure. So our students' final project is a signature story from their life, and it should be a story that's meaningful, infused with levity. And inevitably, when they bring in their drafts, they are all just funny stories from their life that don't have any meaning.

EVAN MEEHAN: My name is Evan Meehan, and I'm 23 years into serving a lifetime ban from the Carroll County Public Library.

BAGDONAS: They bring in these drafts, and we read them. We're like, OK, great job, great job. Now throw them all away. Pick moments in your life that are important, that are meaningful, that shaped you, and then infuse levity into those stories.

MEEHAN: Now, to understand my sentence, you have to understand that I grew up in a foster family with 19 siblings, so my family had to get really creative with child care, and I had to grow up fast. When I was 4 years old, my mother enrolled me in daycare at the library. The only problem was they had a strict age limit of 6 and older. And those librarians were onto me immediately. In my reading circle, I was the smallest, worst-behaved and most conspicuously illiterate child in the room.

BAGDONAS: Looking at these difficult moments from our lives and choosing to have them be comedies - that is a really hard thing to do, and it's a muscle that we work.

MEEHAN: So despite this setback, I continue to live as the oldest version of someone my age. I'm 27 years old now, and if you haven't noticed, I'm rocking the dad bod pretty hard. And I've raised money to try to buy a company from a retiring owner. That's right, people. My job when we leave here is literally to date old men. So if any of you know any old business owners, I'd love the connection. I'm happy to meet them anywhere except for the Carroll County Public Library.

BAGDONAS: Our life is just our remembered stories, and we have more agency than we think to choose the genre. Of course, that's not always possible, and sometimes it's absolutely impossible. But I think that's part of the mission that we're on, is to recognize that we have more agency about the stories that we create in our lives and the stories that we tell about ourselves.

ZOMORODI: That was Naomi Bagdonas and Jennifer Aaker. Their book is "Humor, Seriously." You can watch their full talk at TED.com.

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