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Need humour in our boardrooms: It can help the leadership connect better and communicate more effectively

As far as our boards are concerned, even before pandemic, we have only had a ‘mandemic’. Through thought and natural effort, we did not include women equally on the boards.

Boardroom (Reuters)
As far as our boards are concerned, even before pandemic, we have only had a ‘mandemic’. (Reuters)

By Srinath Sridharan

Usually, ‘board of directors’ evokes a mental picture of a group of old men in a stiff-upper-lip setting, in a wood-panelled room. This stereotype is rooted in gender and age biases, as women directors do not seem to exist in these settings, and all the “board directors” are serious and stuffy men. This is not a laughing matter!

As far as our boards are concerned, even before pandemic, we have only had a ‘mandemic’. Through thought and natural effort, we did not include women equally on the boards. Then, societal awareness increased around it, and regulations were brought in to increase women’s participation in the boards. Despite these regulations, the participation of women leaders is very low. Hopefully, Corporate India’s ‘mandemic’ will be resolved consciously. Sadly, gender equality is still relegated to being a “narrative” or “affirmative action”. Age is still a barrier to boardrooms. Age has been wrongly seen as an upholder of good values, morality and ethics.

Boards have a tough job if one goes by the long list of governance regulations, statutory compliance and moral responsibility at large. If one goes by the seriousness and the length of board agendas and the true spirit of discussions that should happen, those meetings would be expected to be serious, long-winded debates and endless presentations—sometimes, just tick boxes against a long agenda list and compliance presentations. It is easy to miss the important narratives in this monotonous routine (or rigmarole, if you so prefer).

The past two years of virtual board meetings allowed one to use the “switch background” feature to “exotic locales” rather than the boring boardroom walls showing in the background. Having a laugh can lighten up the mood. Humour does not mean frivolousness.

Let us not confuse between humour and comedy. Humour is something that makes us laugh in any situation. Comedy is planned entertainment, relies on jokes, visual gags, and physical acts to entertain an audience.

Humour at the Indian workplace, especially in a supposed-to-be-serious place, the boardroom, is sadly judged as negative behaviour. Humour, many times, is perceived as an eccentric trait. Boardrooms need more human connection, not just professionalism, and courteous behaviour. Humour can be an efficient method to achieve it.

Humour does more than just making people laugh. One could connect better with their stakeholders without any/much stress. It makes one sound human and makes one’s designation less overbearing. It could disarm even the staunchest of critics. Humour can also help communication, apart from being therapeutic. Humour induces laughter that rejuvenates the heart and blood circulation, and also increases endorphins. This, in turn, can increase mental and emotional calm that could dissuade harsh reactions in event of vociferous debate or even a clash of ideology.

An endorsement for this approach comes from Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning—and importantly, a concentration camp survivor. He described humour as “another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation”. He thought it was “a trick learned while mastering the art of living”, and that “it is possible to practise the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent”.

Very few corporate leaders have advocated humour as a key leadership skill. One does not need to be born with humour. It helps build rapport, increase motivation, and gain trust. It is a skill that can be learned and improved upon. Humour, when used at the right time and in the right dose, can humanise leaders. It can make them far more relatable. Humour shared amidst people can build up a shared belief. It can even decrease the personal or professional positional gaps between individuals. Humour is a genuine form of communication as the laughter that follows comes from the relatability of a shared experience and the open sharing of honest truths, which are otherwise not acknowledged in public.

Most India Inc leaders choose to present a formal face. Their presence and utterances are that of political correctness. Very few Indian corporate leaders actually enthrall their audiences with clean humour. The right balance is to be able to step back from our ego-position and laugh at our vanity—and then step back in and get on with life. Age should be no influencer in adopting humour.

“A non-executive director is a bit like a bidet—no one knows what it does, but it adds a bit of class,” said Lord Michael Grade, former chairman, BBC. We surely don’t want boardrooms to become a joke. But, honestly, our boardrooms could do with a bit of humour. Anyone listening in Corporate India?

The writer is an independent markets commentator & CEO coach.

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