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Brain circuits

A key leadership skill you may not be using enough

IbyIMD+ Published 2 December 2022 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

There has been a lot written in the last couple of years about weathering turbulent times, but one key leadership skill often gets overlooked. Before we tell you what it is, take a moment and try this exercise:

Think of a very stressful meeting – bad news, sudden budget cuts, or similar – that ended with unresolved issues and negative emotions.

Now think of a time you were in similar situation but the tension suddenly broke. What caused that? More likely than not, someone probably made a light or funny comment, and everyone chuckled.

We’ve all been in such situations, and when someone manages to get a smile or a laugh from the group you can instantly feel the tension drain from the room. Laughter brings collective relief, especially in high-pressure situations. Often, new ideas flow better afterwards.

Why humor is often an underused leadership skill

Many serious reasons make leaders reluctant to actively embrace humor:

  1. It is often defined as (only) telling jokes, an extremely tricky exercise in our global, very diverse, and virtual world.
  2. If misunderstood, it might backfire and undermine the credibility of a leader.
  3. It might be misinterpreted as ‘making fun of a serious situation’.

To avoid these pitfalls, and leverage humor to sail better through rough waters, you need to redefine it and approach it in small steps.  

Humor is adding lightness, fluidity to a stuck-tensed situation

The etymology of ‘humor’ refers to a ‘body fluid’ evoking a sense of flow. Telling jokes is only a small (and probably the hardest to pull off) aspect of it.

Consider humor as a dimmable light: from levity to laughter, to increase your impact when people feel under pressure. The ability to adjust the light shows you are confident and in control.

Develop it with your voice and your emails

Use a calm and friendly tone of voice. This won’t lead to direct laughter, but it does lighten the atmosphere which is important. This is the default voice of FBI hostage negotiators.

When it comes to written communication, you have countless opportunities per day to add some levity to your emails. What I do is sign off with some relatability:  

Best wishes from under a deluge of very wet rain, Giulia feeling much more confident that we can make it happen.

Plan it in your next presentation

Plan humor and embed a couple glimpses of it into a low-stakes presentation.

For example, add a humorous image or even a short video. Often, animals and nature are topics which are fine across cultures.

Neuroscience Serious Fact

When we laugh together, we breathe together; when we smile together, we move together. Breathing and moving together helps activates our mirror neurons and increase our sense of belonging.

This is nothing new ­– it has been done for centuries. It is one of the reasons religions sing together (this also requires breathing together) or militaries march together. It brings groups into the same rhythm.

If you are struggling to incorporate humor into your workday, the first step would be to relax, and try to laugh at your difficulty laughing.

Further reading: 

To read more from Francesca Giulia Mereu, follow her on LinkedIn here.


Francesca Giulia Mereu coaching corner

Francesca Giulia Mereu

Executive coach

An executive coach with more than 20 years’ experience, Francesca Giulia Mereu is also author of the book Recharge Your Batteries. She regularly works with Frontline Humanitarian Negotiators (CCHN) and at IMD with senior leaders of global organizations. You can follow her LinkedIn Group on managing your energy here.


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