Why humour is a secret weapon in business and life

Richard Branson laughing with Nelson Mandela
Image by Virgin.com
Clare Kelly
by Clare Kelly
26 March 2021
“We all like an individual with a sense of humour, so why shouldn’t a company have one too?”

These are the words of our founder, Richard Branson - and with an attitude like that it’s no wonder Virgin has always known how to have fun.

At Virgin Unite we believe that harnessing humour isn’t just fun, it’s a critical leadership skill. Thankfully our incredible friends from Stanford Graduate School of Business, Dr Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, believe this so deeply that they’ve written a book about it: Humour, Seriously.

We are delighted to share some excerpts from their book, which we are proud to feature in, below. We hope that Humour, Seriously will encourage you to embrace humour in a time that needs it more than ever.

Humour has a transformative effect on our behaviour and psychology. On our mental health, creativity, feelings of closeness with others, and sense of meaning in life.

It’s a completely underleveraged asset at work. Our workplaces are far too humourless. Yet the ROI on humour is significant – a simple humorous line can increase willingness to pay for something by 18%. When leaders use humour at work, they’re 23% more respected, and lead teams that report to be 15% more satisfied with their job and find their bosses 27% more motivating and admirable.

It’s a learnable skill. Small shifts in behaviour and mindset are all it takes to reap the benefits -- which are particularly profound in hard times - to adapt to the strains of remote work, mitigate zoom fatigue, bridge the trust gap, and unlock agility in the face of rapid change. Leaders who harness humour at work are able to disarm, encourage bold actions and give other people courage to do the same.

Consider Spanx founder and CEO Sara Blakely — who, when founding Spanx, first approached the head buyer from Neiman Marcus by mailing him a single shoe and handwritten note that said “just trying to get my foot in the door; have minutes to chat?” The buyer called Sara back and that single act of humour proved more influential than hundreds of emails and calls.

Image by Ben Rose
Image by Ben Rose

Richard Branson is of course well-known for his public escapades - from hiding in overhead bins on Virgin planes to hanging from a speeding helicopter from a bungee cord. But fewer realise Richard’s deep commitment to play to do really serious work.

A number of years ago, Richard hosted a series of meetings at his home on Necker Island in the Caribbean. The meetings were to form The Elders, a group founded by Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel to work together toward global peace and human rights. The inaugural brainstorming sessions included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Jimmy Carter, retired United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the musician and activist Peter Gabriel, and other world leaders.

Leading up to the event, Virgin Unite President, Jean Oelwang, and her team had spent months planning every detail of the meetings, preparing elaborate daily schedules, and compiling hundreds of pages of heavily researched presentations about pressing human rights issues. The night before The Elders arrived, Richard and the team convened to go over the plan. Richard took one look at the materials and said, ”great work, now cut it in half”. He was resolute that the whole agenda for the retreat needed to be half work, half play.

Image by David Turnley
Image by David Turnley

The idea bordered on ludicrous - world leaders were flying in from across the globe and dedicating multiple days to furthering the mission of peace and human rights, and the team was going to spend half of their time together playing? But that’s exactly what they did. They reworked the agenda so that the structured sessions were broken up with playful activities.

And as Jean tells the story — “play time” was when the real work happened. It was during one of those afternoons, as President Carter and Archbishop Tutu sat together on the beach, their toes dug into the sand, that the two men created what would eventually become the founding values for The Elders.

Richard, Jean, and so many of the leaders we spotlight in our book are steadfast in their belief that serious moments - like this once-in-a lifetime brainstorm with some of the greatest leaders of a generation — are actually the ones in which levity is needed most. That the balance of gravity and levity gives power to both.

A Wall Street Journal bestseller, Humour, Seriously is the new book by Stanford Business School faculty Dr. Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas on harnessing humour as a secret weapon in work and in life. Buy the book here.  Also, discover your humour style and use it to build bonds, defuse tension, boost creativity, and bolster resilience in tough times. Go to bootcamp.humorseriously.com and use the code: VIRGIN50 at check out to get 50% off.