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The Priming Effect

There's a psychological principle called the priming effect that says our brains are wired to see what we've been set up to expect. In essence, we find what we choose to look for.


So when we live our lives on the precipice of a smile, we shift how we interact with the world, and in turn, how it interacts back.

Alright, so let's explore something ... how often do you really have a hearty laugh at work?

It will not come to anyone as a surprise that the answers vary wildly:

  • "Rarely."

  • "Seldomly."

  • Someone even responded, "I study climate change. Why would I laugh?"



The power of humor in leadership

Did you know that humor is a teachable skill? Also, it happens to be one of the most underappreciated assets in most workplace. There are many reasons why this is so but let's refer to the global study (of over a million people.)

The outcome of this study is sadly that we've all fallen off a humor cliff on a global scale. In this global study, over a million people were asked a simple question: "Did you smile or laugh a lot, yesterday?" When we are kids, the answer is (almost immediately) "yes." Then, right when we enter the workforce, the answer becomes "no."

The good news is things look up again around age 80. The bad news is the average life expectancy is age 78.🤣🤣🤣 (not a joke.)

Over the last decade, Behavior Scientist Jennifer Aaker and Corporate Strategist Naomi Bagdonas have gathered data, partnered with comedians and talked to leaders about humor.

One of them was their mutual friend Connor Diemand-Yauman. Connor is the co-CEO of a large nonprofit, and in early 2020, just weeks after the world went into quarantine, he's leading his first virtual offsite with his entire organization. People are exhausted and scared, it's tense. So Connor shares a few slides before passing to another teammate to speak. But when he does, he intentionally leaves his screen-share on, so his entire organization watches, thinking that this is a terrible mistake. As Connor closes his PowerPoint, opens up a Google search, and types into the google search bar - "things inspirational CEOs say during hard times."

Everyone sees it of course, and EVERYONE laughs.

It's this absolutely beautiful moment of levity, and it has real upside for Connor and for his organization, because we are learning from the Aaker/Bagdonas research that leaders with a good sense of humor are seen as 27% more motivating. Their teams are more bonded and more creative.

Also, humor sells. Studies show that adding a lighthearted line into a sales pitch, like "My final offer is x ... and I'll throw in my pet frog," makes people willing to pay nearly 20% more.

Resting Pitch Face

Laughter also shortens the path to connection as well. So when strangers share a laugh before a conversation, they end up disclosing more personal information, so they feel closer.


So what's happening when we laugh is that our brains release a spectacular cocktail of hormones.

  • Endorphins: which give us a similar feeling to a runner’s high

  • Lower cortisol: making us feel calmer

  • Dopamine: which is the same hormone released during sex, making us feel more bonded.

So, in essence, as far as our brains are concerned, laughing is like exercising, meditating and having sex - all at the same time.

It's time to face the facts people, humor works! I just fixed the entire Global Humor Cliff problem with my blue Sharpie (see new chart below.)


Isn’t that better? Just a little Sharpie action saves the day.

Good News

This is not about becoming a comedian. This is about looking at the world in a different way.

Life is filled with moments of humor, if we know how to look for it, appreciate it, and even perpetuate it.

I don't look for what's funny, I often find myself looking for what's true. Because, often times, what's true in our own lives, is really relatable to others and it's really funny.

Someone at work recently said this true statement: "when I am working from home, I only comb the front part of my hair and I don't wear any pants."

Another friend of mine often says, "I only like my own kids."

Ha! How true is THAT? (and funny!)

Go from transactional interactions to transformational interactions

Be human with your humor! This should be easy for most, because we are human, but it does often times become more difficult for us at work, and it is harder than we think.

In a recent survey, people were asked "What traits inspire trust in a leader?" One of the top responses: "Speaks like a regular person."

When our work gets serious and our life gets busy, we become transactional. And yet these small shifts are enough to move us from transactional to transformational.

Let's take "best."

Many people sign off their emails with this one, simple word: “Best.”

What does "best" even mean? Are you the best? Am I the best? Why do I need to even tell you that?

I am here to tell you, we can all do better than "best."

Here are some suggestions based on the time of day. How about ...

  • When you've been up all night, "Yours heavily caffeinated."

  • When you're talking about financial accounting? "Let's never speak of this again."

It is easy to believe that if we take our lives or our mission seriously, the presence of humor betrays that mission. That gravity and levity are somehow at odds. But the Aaker/Bagdonas research tells a different story.

Great Leaders Take Humor Seriously

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to her very next meeting with the Russian foreign minister, wearing a bug pin as an immediate (humorous) response to the Russian government who had just bugged the US State Department (which, of course, was a serious breach in international diplomacy.)

Albright's bug pin was massive. To many, it was hilarious.

The foreign minister couldn't help but smile when she stepped out with it on and the energy in the room shifted, and it even changed the conversation, and the tone of the conversation, entirely.

Albright's story illuminates at least two things that are true:

  1. Humor is a choice, one we make in small moments and in big ones, too.

  2. The balance of gravity and levity gives power to both.

We can do serious things without taking ourselves so seriously, and in fact, often, we can do them better.

Comedian Dave Chappelle

Most comedians know that humor can be really tricky these days, which is why they can practice hundreds of times before a line makes it into one of their sets.

They also get to wear jeans and drink at work. It's all very unfair.

How can everyday non-comics practice safe sets?

I often start by recognizing that it's not about me. I won't ask myself ahead of time, "Will this make me sound funny?" Instead, I ask: “How will this make other people feel?”

Hot tip - never punch down below the belt. Making fun of someone, or their status, or their mother, kids, spouse. It's really in poor taste and more often than not, viewed as inappropriate. I mean, no one else wants to get slapped on stage by Will Smith, right?

Also, be sure to check your distance in the social setting and in the setting of the subject matter as well. How close are you personally to what you're making light of?

Our hope that you soon start climbing back up the humor cliff. Remember to start with what's true, and start small. Choose to live on the precipice of a smile and slowly start to rewire your brain to seek out joyful things, subjects, news, etc. When you do this, you create teams, communities, connections and families where joy and laughter flow more easily.

Princess Dad

Laughing together makes us feel more connected. It floods our brains with the same hormones associated with love, and who doesn't want to feel more joy and love in our lives?

Where humor exists, love is not far behind.❤️


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