Book a call

Laughter as a Leadership Tool – Cultivating a Positive Culture in Your Agency 

Short on time?

Jump to the TLDR

Let's get started

Ready to accelerate your agency?

Book a call

Tracey Hudson

It’s innate in human nature to laugh and enjoy a joke; helping people bond, stay positive and even cope under extreme pressure. After all, everyone knows that laughter is the best medicine! 

One piece of research found that we are more than 30 times more likely to laugh in a social context than when alone, making workplaces a prime location for humour. This means it can be a valuable tool, even in the most professional of organisations – and another good reason for working in the office. We all know, agency life is dynamic, busy and the people in our teams are very used to dipping in and out of different business cultures and etiquettes because of the variety of clients, so adaptability should come easy right?! That said, as everyone has surely experienced at least once in their lives, humour is a two-edged sword. From a joke falling flat on your audience to crossing a line of acceptability, humour can go badly wrong! 

Should we get all jokes/sarcastic comments/any other verbal entertainment pre-authorised by someone morally superior to us all? 

Errrrr, no! 

Micro-managing humour is hardly a recipe for laughter, but it’s good leadership to set the tone – if someone says something too close to the line, let them know. Not in a humiliating way of course – just have a quiet word about it not being appropriate so that they know for next time. If you ignore it, the silence assumes acceptability so don’t avoid the awkward conversation. 

Beyond a joke… 

While dark humour or edgy jokes have a place, the workplace is not normally it. A useful guide would be to take the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 as a starting point for what is off limits: 

😟 – Sex 

😟 – Age 

😟 – Religion 

😟 – Race 

😟 – Sexual orientation 

😟 – Disability 

😟 – Pregnancy and maternity 

😟 – Marriage and civil partnership 

😟 – Gender reassignment 

We might even add politics to this list as they are sure to offend someone. You won’t get a discrimination claim from a political joke but let’s not try and divide the office into sides…! 

In addition to these, it would be commercially and reputationally wise to ensure customers were not the butt of jokes and, for that matter, other stakeholders, such as suppliers and investors. We all know someone who hit ‘reply all’ by accident and wanted the world to swallow them whole when they realised that the client, their manager and their dog would see the sarcastic comment against the client that was intended for their office bestie. 

Let’s bring some structure to our fun 

Hopefully, with the boundaries set and a positive culture, the laughs will flow naturally and appropriately amongst your team but there is some stuff you can do to inject humour: 

🙂 – A consistent time of month for sharing funny memes or videos, like Monday mornings or the last Friday afternoon of the month. A “we made it to Friday” celebratory gif often goes down well. Keep it simple – don’t overthink it. 

🙂 – If they feel comfortable, encouraging employees to open a presentation with some humour to help them build rapport – but please don’t be cheesy! 

🙂 – Adding a humorous slant to ice breakers at the start of longer meetings or workshops really helps, or even taking breaks and playing funny games to ‘reset’ the creative minds. 

Managing the fall-out from a bad joke 

Employees will always take a cue from you as boss. If you have a good handle on the culture, hopefully you will not have to address such fall-out. But sometimes people act out of character or make a bad judgement. 

Beware the go-to excuse of “banter” from perpetrators, suggesting that they were just having a laugh and others can’t take a joke. If the laughter is persistently one-sided it will sooner or later introduce toxicity into your workplace. Preventative steps are so much easier than navigating your way out of a toxic workplace. 

If the joke is so far beyond what’s acceptable, or it’s gone on too long and is, say, perceived as bullying, you will need to manage the individual through the disciplinary process. For other lighter infringements a more informal approach may be sufficient, with all parties happy to draw a line under the incident. 

If you see something or hear something though that you think isn’t appropriate, don’t wait for the ‘victim’ of the ‘joke’ to complain. Step up, do your job, say something! You’re the boss – if it’s not appropriate to your ears, then it’s not ok for everyone else and others will look to you for your reaction when someone crosses the line. This is your time to demonstrate effective leadership. 

Knock knock… Who’s there? 

It’s your local HR Dept, not here to make you laugh but ready to help you prevent people problems. If you have issues with humour in your agency or want to check that your policies set the right tone, please get in touch with a local HR provider. 


About the Author

Tracey Hudson is an experienced HR professional having worked in HR for over 20 years, predominantly advising the SME market. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and has built a wealth of experience across all industries over the years including working with marketing and ad agencies, so she really knows her stuff! And on top of that, she’s always happy to have a chat with anyone so if you want to pick her brain, drop her a message.

  • 😂 Laughter is key in bonding and positivity; we’re 30x more likely to laugh socially.
  • ⚖️ Humour can be a double-edged sword: while beneficial, it can cross lines of acceptability.
  • 🚫 Avoid jokes on protected characteristics (e.g., sex, age, race) & potentially divisive topics like politics.
  • 📩 Be cautious with humour in official communications; avoid jokes at stakeholders’ expense.
  • 📅 Set boundaries and encourage appropriate humour (e.g., memes on certain days, ice-breakers).
  • 👩‍💼 If humour crosses a line, address it immediately and demonstrate leadership.