"The problem is that we have fallen off a humor cliff," Naomi Bagdonas asserts, citing findings that people stop laughing and smiling around the age of 23. The curve doesn't start heading upwards again until age 70.

Naomi, co-author of the book Humor, Seriously with Dr. Jennifer Aaker and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, argues that humor is one of leaders' most under-leveraged assets — especially during crisis. We've highlighted insights from her Chief workshop below, which focuses on how and why leaders should harness the power of humor to foster connection, build trust, and bolster resilience through hard times:

Take Humor Seriously? Right Now?

Yes, right now. Through a pandemic, social and political turmoil, climate change, and an attempted coup. Because what we've found throughout the last decade is that there is incredible power in humor to spark breakthroughs, shift relationships, and diffuse tension when the stakes are high.

We're experiencing a rapid shift to remote work, which makes it harder than ever to foster joy and wellbeing in the workplace. Trust is at an all time low in our businesses and institutions, and as leaders, it's our job to right the ship. Research shows that when people use any kind of appropriate humor in a professional context, their co-workers view them as more confident and more competent at their job.

The Science Behind Humor's Power, and How It Impacts Our Brains and Behavior

Laughter accelerates a feeling of closeness between people and cuts down the path to friendship. When we rarely see our coworkers in person, simply remembering stories of shared laughter can recreate that closeness. And this is due to our biology. When we laugh with someone, whether it's across a screen or next to each other, our brains release a powerful cocktail of healthy hormones.

This plays out at the negotiation table, too. In one study, researchers found that art dealers who told a lame joke at the end of their negotiation got a higher price for their piece of art. The buyers also reported liking the dealer more, feeling less stressed about the negotiation, and being more likely to engage with that buyer again. It all goes back to what's happening in our brains. The buyer releases oxytocin and starts to trust the dealer. They release dopamine and feel pleasure from the interaction. They release endorphins, get a little high, and walk away feeling like they got a great deal.

Debunking the Myths That Are Holding Us Back From Using Humor at Work

The first thing holding us back is the "born with it" myth, the belief that humor is a personality trait that you inherit or don't. But research shows that everyone has a sense of humor, whether or not it's actively expressed. And the more we flex our humor muscle, the easier it becomes to make ourselves and others laugh.

Second is the "being funny" myth, or the idea that humor is the same thing as comedy. But especially for leaders, it's not about cracking jokes. It's about cultivating joy, and creating environments where joy comes more easily. Lastly, there's the "serious business" myth, which is the idea that we're doing serious and important work, and that the presence of humor betrays our business mission.

But in fact, leaders who leverage their sense of humor are able to accomplish more than leaders who don't — and they're better at bringing their employees along that mission.

How We Can Find More Humor

On day one of our Stanford Business School course, we task our students with a week-long humor audit, which is the most fun audit you will ever participate in. They track how many times a day they laugh or make someone else laugh. And by the end of the week, the students start to recognize why they aren't laughing and misperceptions about humor. And then they start to report finding more joy in their lives. This is related to the priming effect in psychology, which is the notion that our brains will find what we set out to look for. The students then delve into understanding their unique styles of humor, which is critical, because each is associated with its own strengths and risks.

Finding humor isn't about cracking jokes or becoming funnier — it's about walking into a room and knowing it will be easy to find joy in it. Humor provides a way for us to cultivate greater empathy and unlock our shared humanity. Leaders who adopt this humor mindset set the tone for a work culture where employees feel more comfortable, there's greater joy, and there's greater connection. And that matters now more than ever.