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The Power of a Smile: Finding the Funny Is a Worthwhile Investment

4 minute read

By Neil Mullarkey

Organisations invite me in to teach skills borrowed from improv theatre – listening, collaborating, adapting, accepting different points of view – but often, at the end of the workshop, the leader whispers to me how much they’ve enjoyed the opportunity simply to laugh together, because it happens so rarely.

‘Improv’ is where the audience give suggestions which the actors then use to create scenes. It’s not stand-up comedy. I perform with the Comedy Store Players every Sunday. But it all started with a social worker, helping disadvantaged children in 1920s Chicago to feel more confident. Her son took it into the theatre. The secret to improv is listening. People think it’s thinking on your feet. No. It’s actually ‘listening on your feet’.


‘A sense of humour is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.’ – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Laughing at your past mistakes helps your team think that they too can survive a setback. Humour shows perspective, that every situation can be looked at from another angle. Shared humour is a sign of a creative environment. Not constant gags or stupid pranks, but everyday moments in conversations – especially virtual meetings which can be so, well, inhuman.

In 2012, the Bell Leadership Institute asked 2,700 people about the strengths of senior colleagues. Sense of humour was ranked highest, along with work ethic. These were mentioned twice as much as other phrases.


A 2008 study in Munich, involving Botox and fMRI scans, found that imitating a smile actually changes what is going on in the brain. So remember to smile on video calls where you might be tempted to look down at your notes (why not pin them behind your laptop, at eye level?)


Don't go buy a joke-book! Trying and failing to be funny is actually worse than not trying, one study found. You don’t need to be a gagster. Just a good laugher. You need to acknowledge that humour has a place at work. Don't stifle it. Lightening the atmosphere could involve something as simple as starting your Teams call with someone holding up and talking about an object which makes them smile. This is not about rip-roaring performance comedy.


Humour creates a sense of who ‘we’ are, together. A study by the University of New Hampshire found that humour helps to sustain group cohesion because it's about:

  • Who we are
  • What we are doing
  • How we do things


'Jokes' that divide people are not humour. Laughing to create a disconnect or rupture between people is bullying. And we all know the difference between benign teasing and mocking.

Invest time and energy to find out what makes your team members laugh. In a quarter of a century of teaching improv, in person and online, I have yet to find a single person without a sense of humour.


I see a lot of workplaces that have ‘wellbeing initiatives’ but how many organisations make a conscious effort to keep their people and culture healthy by laughing enough each day? If you did a ‘laughter audit’ at work, how much opportunity for humour is there? Laughter has plenty of beneficial physiological effects. It activates dopamine, a natural feelgood chemical. A good laugh brings in lots more oxygen and helps our blood pressure.


You know in a sitcom where an object/person/word crops up a second time, then a third time? Just as our hero is sticking his tongue out (for perfectly reasonable and unrelated reasons) that haughty neighbour pops up again. Comedy creators know this as a ‘call-back’.

Remember what people say, and mention it later, when things have moved on. Incongruity is a recognised pillar of humour but this also shows the person you were listening. It's a simple way of demonstrating you’re paying attention to others and creating a smile with somebody you just met or have known for years.

This is how ‘inside jokes’ evolve. The mis-pronounced meeting room name or the email spelling mistake become running jokes which only ‘we’ know.

“There is little success where there is little laughter” – Andrew Carnegie

 neil mullarkey

Neil Mullarkey

Neil Mullarkey is the author of new book In The Moment: Build Your Confidence, Communication and Creativity at Work, published by Kogan Page on 03 June 2023, priced £12.99.



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