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Y is for You're Not That Funny

My college buddies and I have a long-standing group text thread replete with banter and jokes. Being not the funniest guy in the group, I am selective when I wade into the waters of comedic public opinion.

A bit back, I came across a meme I thought was guaranteed to get a few laughs. After I shared it, I waited for the affirming responses to roll in. But, nothing. Not even a thumbs-up or “lol” was offered. Since what I sent was borderline inappropriate, the recovering people-pleaser in me began to worry that I had offended my crew. To investigate my potential misstep, I private-messaged one friend and asked earnestly, “Did I offend the fellas or is what I shared just not funny?”

“Well, you can’t offend this group, so…”

The dangling “so...” said it all. What I had shared just wasn’t that funny. (Insert teary-eyed emoji here.)

There’s a bigger truth in my friend’s feedback, a lesson for all leaders to learn: none of us are as funny as our teams’ chuckles would suggest. We’ve been duped by hierarchy-induced courtesy laughs. I’m really not that funny. Nor are you. You’re likely funnier than I am, but you’re not as funny as your employees are leading you to believe. (I know it hurts. Go ahead and take a moment to re-calibrate your sense of self.)

But why this disconnect between perception and reality?

Power dynamics inherent to hierarchy are to blame. It’s because you are the boss.

Unlike the teams we lead, there is not a systemic power dynamic at play among our friends. Without an institutional influence factor figuring into things, my buddies honored my ho-hum meme with a nonresponse. Honest feedback in the form of crickets. Had they been employees, I am confident that I would have received at least a 50% response rate replete with a variety of encouraging emojis. An evil, hypothetical experiment would be to throw out a loser of a joke and see how your team responds. I think we know what would happen, and that awareness is where our way forward is found.

But first, there’s another more crucially important lesson for us to face and embrace as leaders: If we are not as funny as our teams lead us to believe, then we are also not as smart or talented or any other form of amazing as we have been led to believe. The challenge inherent here is that institutional power dynamics are at play in all that leaders do. Our mere presence in the room impacts everything and everyone. Every word spoken. Every idea offered. Every vote cast. Everything. The antidote to the potential dangers of our presence as leaders is the increased awareness of its reality and the subsequent different choices and approaches we make and take in response.

This is to say, the solution is found in embracing the fact that far more often than our intuition would suggest and in more ways than we are aware, the leader is an elephant in the room affecting all that transpires.

Leaders with a higher awareness of the impact of power dynamics grow to believe that far better than being the big-idea boss is being the boss who helps create a culture where all feel comfortable coming forward with fresh thinking. They also understand that far better than being the funny boss is being the boss who finds things funny. They grow to be wise enough to know that the feedback they receive from their teams is inherently compromised by institutional power dynamics.

With this wisdom, we grow more humble. We ask more questions. We wait a bit longer to speak. We soften our stances. We lead with more levity, a lightheartedness. We become role-model leaders, elephants more inclined to be emulated than merely humored.

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