How To Use Humor To Break Through Barriers And Grow Your Business
Imagine that you are 15, homeless and pregnant, alone in a big city after having spent your entire life living in a small village. Where would you turn? How would you create a good life for yourself and your child?
For Inger Ellen Nicolaisen, the answer was humor. Just 10 years after she became a single, homeless mother at 16 in Oslo, Inger founded her business, Nikita Hair. In the almost 35 years since then, Nikita has become one of the largest hair care franchises in Europe, with over 150 salons, and has now expanded into North America. Inger also went on to have two other children (her second daughter, Christinah, is now the president of Nikita Hair), and to adopt nine other children from an orphanage in Lithuania. Inger and Christinah recently established a line of natural har and skincare products based on their work with clients
When I spoke with Inger recently, I was immediately impressed with her warmth, energy and her irrepressible sense of fun. I asked why humor had been so important in her difficult early years, and she shared that when she felt most overwhelmed and despondent, she would find small things to laugh about, or make fun of her own doom-and-gloom predictions, and it would shift her attitude enough to allow her to keep moving forward. And she’s convinced that connecting with others through humor allowed her to build the relationships that were foundational to her success.
She believes that humor is her most powerful leadership attribute, as well. She’s intentionally used humor as a consistent catalyst for her business’ growth and success. Over the years, she’s used humor to do the following:
- Create Memories And Build A Bonded Community: Shared humor is a common language. As your employees share humorous moments, they bond over the experience, creating an ongoing sense of comfort and unity. Inger shared with me one example: in the early years of her business, when something went wrong, she and her staff would say to each other, “Houston, we have a problem.” Over time, that got shortened to, “”We have a Houston” – and saying that now always produces smiles and lightens the atmosphere for everyone, freeing their brains to turn to problem-solving.
- Establish A Relaxed, Friendly Culture: Inger encourages all her managers to begin each day by taking the time to ask each employee how they’re doing, and – if possible – share a laugh. It sets the tone for the day, and she finds that the employees’ good humor translates into a warm and positive environment for customers: if the employees are enjoying themselves, they tend to want to share that with those around them.
- Increase Creativity: Inger often starts a meeting with goofy or lighthearted ice-breakers. She’s found that brings people’s guard down: they’re less self-conscious and can then offer suggestions or ideas they might have otherwise been hesitant to say out loud. And having shared a light moment in the ice-breaker helps assure that others in the meeting are more open to considering those odd or novel ideas that often lead to break-throughs.
- Break The Tension: Sometimes when people are in conflict, a moment of shared humor can defuse the situation. Inger told me about a time where one employee’s resistance and negativity was angering her colleagues and making it hard to resolve an issue. Inger handed the employee a red card and said, “Anybody who isn’t helping solve the problem gets a time-out.” The woman burst out laughing, and the tension broke, allowing the group to address the issue.
- Keep Going In Tough Times: When circumstances around you are difficult – tough competition, challenging economies, massive changes – it’s easy to get anxious and despondent, and lose your forward momentum. Inger has found that keeping a sense of humor in tough times acts almost like a “curtain in her brain,” protecting her from negativity – her own and that of those around her – and allowing her to keep her focus on how to address the situation.
- Lead With Levity: Inger believes that consistently modeling lightheartedness and warmth is key to building a productive and successful team. She noted that coming to her team with humor, especially self-deprecating humor, is authentic and honest, and so encourages that in her staff. And she’s found that when people can laugh with each other, it’s often easier to say difficult things, when that’s what needed. Finally, she’s found that humor is correlated with enthusiasm and hopefulness – and that those who lead with humor spark those qualities in others.
Inger’s insights about humor are supported by research. An article about laughter from the Mayo Clinic’s website notes that laughter can stimulate your heart, lungs and muscles and increase the endorphins released by your brain; activate and then relieve your stress response; and stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation. Over the long term, laughter can build your immune system, relieve pain, and lessen overall depression and anxiety.
So, next time you’re feeling stuck or down, or worried that your team isn’t coming together the way you need them to—try humor.