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When humor is used to ease a burden or relieve tension, it is greatly appreciated.
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updated 4/25/2012 1:05:24 PM ET 2012-04-25T17:05:24

The old saying ”everybody loves a comedian” has given rise to an era where everybody thinks they’re a comedian. Sadly, what many have failed to realize is that the old saying is meant to be sarcastic.

We all love good humor, but not all humor is good. The timely and appropriate use of humor is an asset to any leader. Likewise, distasteful or inappropriately timed humor can be a significant liability. As a leader, it’s easy to get a laugh — your title will virtually guarantee it. Therefore it’s important for leaders to become skilled at distinguishing the difference between a compliant chuckle and a sincere chortle.

Good humor can bring people closer, but poor humor can be one of the strongest repellents known to man.

Did you hear the one about the pastor, priest and rabbi who went skydiving? Just kidding. The very nature of humor is it’s misunderstood more often than not. This makes humor a proverbial two-edged sword — it can slice through the toughest of situations to your advantage, or cut sharply against you.

When levity is used to appropriately ease a burden or relieve tension it is greatly appreciated. However when your rapier wit is used as a weapon of humiliation or intimidation you are confusing humor with arrogance. Eighteenth-century poet William Collins said: “I think humor is a very serious thing.”

Just because you find something funny, doesn’t make it so. To use humor to mock, belittle, undermine, or attack isn’t good humor, and it’s certainly not good leadership. Many a private tear has been hidden behind a public smile.

One trait that consistently ranks highly among the most admired leaders is that they’re confident enough to poke fun at themselves. When leaders understand the difference between false humility (self-serving) and authentic self-deprecating humor (benefiting others), things quickly transition from awkward to funny. Smart leaders have long recognized the best punchline: themsleves. Using the levity surrounding one's experiences, mistakes, failures, challenges, etc., can turn teachable moments into unforgettable lessons.

Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should. The mental picture of a whoppie cushion in a board meeting might be funny, but it wouldn’t be appreciated. A general rule of thumb would be if something would get a laugh at a fraternity party, it’s likely not appropriate in the workplace.

Jack Benny said: “Gags die, humor doesn’t.” Workplace humor is a tricky thing to be sure, and I’m hopeful the following eight tips will help keep you from falling down the slippery slope and having your jokes land with a thud:

  1. Don’t confuse being a leader with being a comedian. Leadership is job No. 1.
  2. An attempt at bad humor is not an acceptable excuse for unacceptable behavior. Racist, sexist, ageist, and other forms of discriminating acts won’t be tolerated because you attempted to cloak them in bad humor.
  3. Use humor to lift people up, not to put them down. Don’t laugh at people, laugh with them.
  4. Don’t force it. If you’re trying too hard to be funny your humor will fall on deaf ears.
  5. Use your humor to make people feel more comfortable rather than more awkward.
  6. Gags and practical jokes should only be used when those on the receiving end find them funny.
  7. Don’t use humor to single someone out; use it to help them acclimate.
  8. Sarcasm is not a license to belittle someone. Saying “I was just joking” doesn’t cut it.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

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