An Undervalued Trait For Career Success
As best as I can figure, I have interviewed over 40,000 people in my career as a recruiter. For fact checkers, I got that number by multiplying 5 people a working day over a 40-year career. That’s over 20,000 hours of interviews. For a normally shy person, I have spoken to a heck of a lot of people.
For many of our projects, our focus in the initial interview revolves around cultural fit/personality issues. The reality is that by the time a candidate has gained a few years of experience, the skill levels among people at the same level tends to be similar. The difference between good and great is not large. If you have been employed for a few years, the assumption of at least some competence comes with the package. The difference in discipline skills between a good accountant or engineer and a great accountant or engineer at the same experience level is not huge. But the difference in personality and softer skills can be enormous. That’s why our initial focus is on the softer side.
We don’t want to determine who is the best engineer.
We want to determine who is the best engineer for that particular client and job.
There is one thing we look for in almost every conversation. For managerial and executive jobs, it is actually a critical component of the written candidate evaluations that we give clients. Time and time again I’ve seen this trait in successful people, both candidates and clients. In fact, in clients, it’s a trait that has a unique spin that is surprisingly common.
I think that for most people to be successful, they need to have a sense of humor. If you don’t have one, at some point you will be limited in your career. Here is why;
1) The sense of humor itself can be a lubricant in a business setting. It can put people at ease, make them comfortable and foster relationship building. Which are critical elements in a matrixed business environment.
2) A sense of humor creates an environment that depersonalizes criticism. That is essential in a good manager.
3) It keeps people on their toes. A one-hour presentation that is nothing more than a recitation of facts does not hold anyone’s attention. The ability to inject that with some lightening element is a signal to the listener that he or she should pay attention, they cannot predict what will come next. It is a tool. Swap a one-hour presentation for a general workday and you get the same result.
Having listed those 3 elements, there is a 4th essential reason that humor is a key component for success. I will get to that in a minute. But first, let’s define humor in this context.
It’s not sarcastic humor. It is not humor for humor’s sakes. It’s not guffawing humor. It’s not personal humor directed at any one individual or group. It’s not forced humor in a weak attempt to be popular. It’s not silly.
It is the ability to inject or appreciate something relevant and amusing into a conversation, setting or relationship. It is a shared experience among humans. It says that we have a relationship beyond an organizational chart.
Maybe you can see where I am heading now. The key reason that humor is important is-
Humor is a sign of empathy. It’s a shared experience. People who successfully understand humor in a business setting, either as a giver or receiver, respect the other person as a person, not an object, and can empathize with that person. Empathy in a manager or professional is a critical tool. People with humor almost always have empathy- they can appreciate a humorous situation because almost all humorous situations or stories have a sense of absurdity to them. For someone to be able to make you laugh, they must be able to see things through your eyes. People who can use humor successfully understand what other people find amusing or interesting. The ability to create spontaneous relationships is critical in any organization.
Empathy is an acknowledgement of someone else’s humanity and says to them “I see you as a person. Let me share this with you.” As a leader, you can’t inspire someone unless you see them first.
Also, notice I used the phrase “as a giver or receiver of humor”. You don’t have to be personally funny to be empathetic. But you do need to see, or get, humor. It takes two people to create empathy. It’s almost always a two-way street- I see you and you see me. So, please don’t think I am telling you to be the “here’s today’s joke” guy or gal. That’s forced humor. Just know when and how to laugh occasionally.
Earlier I mentioned that many of our clients have a unique spin to their sense of humor. Most of our clients are business owners. They’ve started, built and grown businesses as small as $5,000,000/yr. to as large as $300,000,000/yr. I think that without exception they are easy people to talk to and make the people around them comfortable. Even though they have many different personalities, they are all leaders in their own way.
And they all have a sense of humor about themselves. That sense of humor reveals an acknowledgement of personal flaws and mistakes and a refreshing lack of ego. That type of humor shows many things:
1) We are all in this together
2) I am not a self-important jerk
3) I can correct my flaws because I see my flaws
Wouldn’t you want to work for a successful person with those viewpoints?
Please take this in context. Don’t walk into a meeting tomorrow with 3 jokes to share. Humor and empathy are internal traits that require an organic appreciation. If you look around you, you will see examples of what I mean. See what he or she does and let that be a starting point to understanding. And remember, humor without empathy is nothing but a joke.