Different ways of inspiring employees have been explored in two interesting, recent articles in the online business media. At Inc.com, two Stanford professors who teach a course on the use of humour in business argue that leaders who are capable of the odd joke here and there tend to build stronger, more creative cultures at their organisations – and even have greater flair for negotiations.

One of the lecturers, Professor Jennifer Aaker, tells the site: “We hear from young leaders about the incredible pressure of being the face of their organisation. Many struggle because they hold on to the false dichotomy between bringing humour [into the workplace] and taking your work seriously.” However, she points out: “The right balance of gravity and levity gives power to both.”

Her colleague Professor Naomi Bagdonas adds that humour can be “a gateway drug to broader aspects of authenticity and vulnerability”.

Over at The Conversation, though, another pair of academics contend that a basic, proactive mindset is missing from too many leaders’ toolkits and, as a result, they’re failing to inspire their staff into action. They write: “Our research suggests that truly proactive leadership is a rare bird. In one study, for example, we interviewed 75 chief executive officers in several countries, including the US, and asked them to tell us their work goals.”

They add: “Of the over 2,000 goals they mentioned, the vast majority were business-as-usual … such as ‘keeping customers,’ ‘surviving’ and ‘holding on to good employees’. Only a very few, such as ‘building a new factory,’ ‘finding a new international partner’ and ‘being a leader in changing how the marketplace works’ were notably proactive in ways that could dramatically change their companies’ trajectories.”

If leaders are worried that they are failing to inspire their staff, can humour help them out – or is it more of a distraction from weightier forms of management?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “A sense of humour is often considered essential in so many areas – particularly relationships. How often do people cite a sense of humour as an essential characteristic that they want from someone when they are looking for a partner? In organisations, where we are dealing all the time with relationships, humour has a huge role to play in advancing communication and understanding.

“It relieves tense situations, and helps to transfer information. It can change the mood of a meeting. It can make dry topics or data come to life. It can make people relax. It can make people become more attentive. It can act as a buffer against stress. Sharing a joke with someone actually indicates that you have shared values, and are likely to trust them more.”

However, Cooper notes: “Of course, humour can be used really negatively – for example, it can very easily slip into bullying. We’ve found in our research on banter that being the recurrent butt of a joke doesn’t take long to get to the point where it just isn’t funny anymore. So it’s the successful use of humour that elicits these positive feelings. And when you can say to yourself, ‘It’s nice to be at work,’ then you are really experiencing the essence of inspiration.

So will humour inspire people – yes, if you know them well, and if you know what makes them laugh. Will it inspire people who don’t share your humour, or who think that work is altogether too serious? No.

She adds: “Ultimately, conveying inspiration is all about being authentic to yourself. Nothing is more infectious than enthusiasm, and there’s nothing more fun than people laughing together. The power of laughter in terms of team building – and I’ve seen it over and over again: groups that share jokes and share a sense of history; even a kind of folklore – become much more cohesive as teams when they’ve had those experiences. If you run any sort of team-building events, you often find that, years later, it’s the things that made those people laugh that still stand out for them.”

For further insights into the subject of inspiration, BOOK NOW for our upcoming Vision webinar with internationally successful sales and marketing consultant – and Institute chairman – John Gavin, set to take place from 5:00pm to 5:30pm on Wednesday 28 February