America’s NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has gone on record to say that a sense of humour is a must-have attribute for a good astronaut. Now more and more companies have come around to the view that it is a quality to be valued in managers as well. Some have gone so far as to add it to the list of essential personality traits a candidate must have to qualify for a job. Others are less explicit, but they do check for it at job interviews.
Southwest Airlines, for example, proactively hires for humour, regardless of whether it’s frontline crew or mechanics, just so every employee will fit into its corporate culture. Those who have flown Southwest or seen videos of its onboard humour in action would appreciate this.
When he was managing director of Tata Tea, I asked Homi Khusrokhan (he’s now an advisor to Tata Capital, besides being on the Board of various prominent companies) how important humour is as a managerial quality. He said: “It’s a rare quality, not easy to spot. Sometimes you find it in the shyest and quiet candidates.”
Everybody loves working for a boss who has a sense of humour. At office parties, those who have it are surrounded by people. Everyone avoids the glum ones who only talk about the Coronavirus and thereby radiate a sense of negativity. In stressful times when the obstacles to success are many and solutions require hard work, it helps to be able to laugh things off. It also helps ease the strained relationships that result from difficult working environments.
Whenever there’s a crisis like the pandemic, social media throws up memes that make fun of the issue, thereby helping us to cope. A sense of humour is credited with sparking creativity, strengthening teamwork and improving customer services. When stuck on projects, people tend to get angry and depressed, so taking time off to laugh can lift the cloud and enable them to think positively again.
When Subramanium Ramadorai was CEO and managing director of Tata Consultancy Services (he is now chairman of Tata Institute of Social Sciences), I asked him how he used humour when things go awry. He said: “We have so many extraneous factors impacting our performance. We have no control over these things, so there’s no point in worrying about them. When people raise these issues, I laugh them off.”
Managers who can see the humour in the vagaries of work life and are able to communicate it are certainly an asset to any office. They introduce a reality check to the organisation and are usually the ones most likely to tell the king (the boss) when he’s naked. For the boss, meanwhile, a dose of humour helps when added to criticism, especially at performance appraisals, when emotions run high.
Still, many people hide their lighter side because they feel it would reduce their gravitas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for one, seems to prefer gravitas over humour. Not so vice president Venkaiah Naidu, whose speeches are guaranteed to make you smile, even as he seeks to convey a serious message. And then there’s Navjot Singh Sidhu in Punjab, a fun politician if there ever was one.