Chapter 1

Principled Leadership

The 7 Principles

Humor & Memories at Work

The 7 Principles


This will be the shortest section in this book because it is the most important. It should be read, re-read and practiced daily within your leadership role. It is important to note that leadership and management is not necessarily synonymous. It is possible to be a leader even when not in a management role. Without the basis of a principled leadership style, your organization, the people you work with, and your clients will suffer. It may not be immediately evident in your financial statements, but principled leadership is clearly reflected in the morale of the people in your organization and the degree of loyalty of your clients.

Clients are loyal for several reasons. Either you are the best in your field at providing excellent products and/or services or your organization is perceived as just as good, or bad, as your competition. Clearly, the second reason someone may be loyal to you is not good enough. The fact that people may see no tangible difference in how they are treated by different health care facility/team (e.g., gasoline service stations, financial institutions or hospitals) means that your organization has the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of your clients and your own staff.

Principled leadership means the right people are doing the right things, for the right people, in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, at the right cost, and for the right reasons. Whenever you compromise on any of these elements in your mission, you must record and explain that compromise to everyone involved so that it is always seen as a compromise. Too often organizations begin with a compromise to their mission, but since it is not recorded as a compromise and explained as a compromise, the situation is soon seen as the ideal. One only has to look at how clients were once seen as vital to a health care facility/team' success. Fairly quickly after World War II, clients were treated more like a nuisance. Only in the later 1980s and during the 1990s have clients (baby boomers with more disposable income) demanded high quality products and quick, efficient service.

After World War II, patients/clients were taught that dying in the hospital was better than dying at home. There was more money and patient beds available that had to be used, whether the patient benefited or not. Today, we have an opportunity to provide the leadership based on the simple principle, “Whatever we do must benefit the patient.” Baby boomers, as only one group, will expect nothing less.

Leadership-A Simple Perspective

The principles of leadership are simple, although not always easy, to implement. Whenever you have difficult leadership or management decisions to make, think about the "simple" solutions before making the situation more complex than is necessary.

You will have your own basic principles under which you make your decisions. Below are the ones we try to use whenever making decisions that affect our work, the people we work with and our clients.

1.Have a personal and predictable vision and style. People and organizations need to plan where they are going in the short and long-term. The people you work with and your clients need to know where you plan to go with your organization. They also need to know that when they approach you, they can successfully predict what your response will be to most situations. One of the most important aspects of this predictable vision is that it requires a predictable leadership style on your part as well. People need to know, predictably, how you will deal with them personally. Are you the type whose mood changes are so abrupt that people are afraid to approach you? Or do you have a style that includes periods of joy, anger, determination and sorrow but in more predictable ways?

2.Have clear expectations of what your staff and colleagues should be doing and well understood methods of praising and criticizing their performance. People often expect to be told when they are doing something wrong. Few of us have learned to expect to be told when we do something right. Too often in the past few decades people have had to wait for a yearly performance review to know how well they were doing at work. People need regular, consistent praise and constructive criticism of what they are doing. You must also make sure that how you evaluate their work is based on your own clear expectations. People cannot do well if you are not clear about what is expected. It is 100% your responsibility to make sure people understand what you expect.

3.Provide people with real choices (3 or more) whenever possible to give them a sense of control. Even when situations seem uncontrollable (e.g., layoffs, economic downturns, client dissatisfaction), people can still look at the situation and come up with 3 real choices. For example, if there must be layoffs in your organization, what choices can you offer? You can offer people an option to retire early or leave the organization voluntarily with a financial settlement. You can offer people, in advance, career planning training to help them understand further career options. You can help people find skills training that might help them begin a different career. Most important, you offer these choices with an attitude of concern and compassion. You do not tell them on a Friday night that they are laid off. You do not let the media tell them about potential layoffs -- you tell your people first. You do not have security escort people to their office in full view of the other staff. You do not ignore the staff that remains behind who wonder if they are next and how the layoffs will demand more work from them. Choice gives a sense of control to people in an atmosphere that says we care about you. Otherwise, choice is just another technique to imply control when control was never possible.

4.Incorporate and encourage the use of humor and fun at work to help create positive work memories. You take your work very seriously but not solemnly. The happier you are, the more productive you are. The happier you are, the happier other people are. The more effort you put into using appropriate humor, fun and creating memories, the more other people will do the same in return for you. This is not about having clowns and balloons at work; nor is it about everyone being a stand-up comedian. It is about creating an atmosphere and environment that says we are here working together and we might as well enjoy the work and the excellent results. People need to go home at the end of most working days and tell their families that they had a good day at work. That feeling of enjoyment, encouragement and support will carry on at home just as people who have miserable days tend to have miserable evenings with their families. Which would you choose? Humor, fun and creating positive memories of work is about an energizing, safe and enjoyable work environment. The second section of this chapter discusses ways to enhance this positive approach to the workplace.

5.Understand that people only hear/read 20% of what anyone, including you, say. They forget 80% of that within 24 hours. Therefore repeat important instructions, and use verbal and written backups. Most conflicts between people stem from the fact that they think you did, or did not, say something. You mistake people's intentions or forget what they have said as often as they do. These misunderstandings lead to us make assumptions about people that are not true. These assumptions lead to feelings and actions that are often hurtful. You must take 100% responsibility for making sure that you understand what people say or write to you and 100% responsibility for making sure that people understand you. You cannot do this all the time, but when a communication or personality problem arises, you must try to resolve the conflict. If you do not, you cannot blame the other person for their ongoing behavior.

6.Understand that everyone, including you, is doing what they think is best for them and best for others with the information and skills they have right now. Few people wake up in the morning with the sole purpose of making your day at work miserable. Yet many times we feel that is exactly what someone has done. They are habitually late. They yell at you in front of other people. They take pleasure in assigning you meaningless work. They turn their back to you, when you enter the room.

Let us look at this principle a little more carefully. How many of us eat unhealthy food? How many of us smoke knowing the effects it has on our health and the health of others? How many of us over use alcohol or drugs on occasion? How many of us drive at unsafe speeds or in unsafe ways? How many of us get too little sleep?

Regardless of how much we know about what is good for us we still do things that are "wrong". We do that because we would rather face the consequences of doing something wrong because the behavior still feels better to us than the alternatives.

In the examples described above, the person who arrives late all the time may have all sorts of good reasons but they may also just like to start work later. Since there appear to be no consequences of their lateness, other than some people being upset, they will continue that behavior. They need choices to help them make better decisions. They may even have accepted the job because the ad asked for a creative person and mentioned nothing about punctuality. Many creative people do not arrive on time, but many stay very late to get their work done.

The person who yells at you in front of other people has probably learned over time that yelling gets results. Until they learn another way of getting similar results, they will continue to yell. They know yelling isn't nice, but they are driven by results not good feelings. Show them other ways of accomplishing the same results but in a way that makes you feel more comfortable.

Someone who takes pleasure in assigning you meaningless work or who turns their back to you when you enter a room has probably made some assumptions about who you are and what you are like. These assumptions are probably based on mistaken communications (remember the 20%-80% rule here) where they thought you said something that you really did not say. Or they have heard rumors that are not correct or should not affect your working relationship. Or you remind them of someone else they do not like. Whatever the reason, principled leadership requires you to try and resolve the problem/conflict or stop complaining about the situation. It is not fair that you have to make the initiative, but the alternative means the situation will not change. Confront people in a respectful and assertive way and with the understanding that you believe they are doing the best they can for themselves and for others with the knowledge and skills they have right now. You may be surprised at how easily the conflict can be solved. Remember, you cannot change someone's personality but you can help them change their behavior. You must also remember that it may be your behavior that needs changing as well.

7.Understand that people learn up to 7 new things at a time, therefore, don't overwhelm them with information. People learn best through experience (50%), through role models and relationships (30%) and through formal education (20%). As a leader you can provide a learning environment where success and mistakes are used as a learning experiences. Sending people to formal education or training programs may help them a little, but most of their learning will still come from you and others at work and at home.

When I need to make major decisions (while I am doing planning or in a crisis situation) I try to base those decisions on these 7 principles. All the other details and techniques described in this book stem from these 7 principles. When I have even less time to think, I return to the single most important ethical question: Are the right people doing the right things for the right people in the right ways at the right time in the right place at the right cost and for the right reasons?

Harry van Bommel

Exercise #1

Your Beliefs and Principles

Everyone has different principles upon which they base their decisions. Often we do not take the time to understand what our principles are and how they affect our decisions. If you hold certain political, religious, psychological, and/or philosophic beliefs, they will affect the kind of principles you use to make decisions. For example, if you believe strongly in equality as a justice principle, then your organization will probably have ways for staff to share in the rewards of their work (beyond wages) and try to encourage the recruitment and development of all types of people who live in your community. If you believe strongly that success in health care comes from meeting the needs of your clients, then you probably have strong client service principles within your organization's mission statement and use those principles to evaluate the success of your staff in meeting clients' needs.

It is always helpful to spend a little time reviewing your beliefs and understanding, consciously, the principles you work with in making your organization successful. Not surprisingly, many of these principles also affect how we deal with family, friends and strangers outside of our work.

Describe the major beliefs you hold about your work, the people you work with, your clients, and your overall philosophy of life.

Your Beliefs and Assumptions

Describe the major beliefs you hold about your work, the people you work with, your clients, and your overall philosophy of life. Consider how your principles have help others and how, if at all, they may hinder others. For example, a person who openly shares their strong religious beliefs can be immensely comforting to clients of similar beliefs but quite disquieting to others who do not share them.

Question                                                        Answer                                                    How May Your Belief Help Or Hinder Others

What fundamental personal beliefs

(e.g. spiritual, political, medical, cultural)

do you strongly adhere to?

Which of your basic assumptions are

in conflict with those of your service?

with your clients? How can you

address these?

Other questions to ask yourself: Which elements of the health care philosophy do you practice most comfortably and why (physical, emotional, spiritual, informational)? Where do you most comfortably practice the care and why? Do you see your relationship with a patient or client as caregiving or mutual care? What do you fear most about dying and death? What gives you the most comfort about dying and death? How do you deal with your fears? What can you do for others? What can you not do for others? What can others do for you? What can others not do for you? Are the right people giving the right care to the right people in the right way in the right place at the right time for the right reasons? Why would a patient, client or colleague want you in the same room with them?

Exercise #2

What Kind of Leader Are You?

It is important to review, regularly, how you are doing as a leader. This may happen during a performance review where you tell others how they are doing and they tell you how you are doing. The following exercise may be a little different than a typical performance review, however. Before you do the exercise, make a few copies. After you have done the exercise yourself, you may want to ask some of your colleagues to fill it out for you as well. Comparing what people honestly think are your strengths and learning needs will help you become an even better leader. People may find it difficult to be honest with you if they believe that you will become defensive about their comments or they may think their evaluation of your skills may lead to bad feelings between you. It will be up to you, if you choose to get other people's opinions, to make sure only positive feelings will come from them helping you.

Put a check mark beside those skills and characteristics that you have now (both positive and negative). Put a circle beside those skills and characteristics you would like to improve or change.

Note: the skills are not listed in any particular order.

Positive Skills/CharacteristicsNegative Skills/Characteristics

___I admit my mistakes (accountable)___I am close minded (bull headed)

___I give positive feedback___I yell privately-publicly

___I allow autonomy___I am inconsistent

___I give sincere praise___I am too nice or too friendly

___I understand job & people___I can be condescending

___I include staff in planning process___I can be bigoted sometimes

___I am a team leader___I can be verbally abusive

___I give recognition where due___I can be incompetent

___I am responsible___I single people out

___I am knowledgeable___I have a superiority complex

___I am trusting___I make unreasonable demands

___I am approachable___I use selective listening

___I encourage fun at work___I play favorites

___I try to resolves conflicts___I have prejudices: personal/racial

___I am fair___I take credit for others

___I am interested in staff as people___I can shift blame

___I am supportive___I can be unfair

___I am calm___I can be frustratingly indirect

___I am funny___I can be mean and vindictive

___I have clear expectations___I can be sarcastic

___I am friendly___I do not give enough direction

___I have good organizational skills___I cannot delegate

___I am confident___I am insecure

___I am predictable___I plagiarize

___I listen and observe body language___I am unpredictable

___I trust judgment of staff___I cannot keep confidences

___I am flexible toward staff needs___I have abrasive people skills

___I hold regular staff meetings___I do not know staff's job

___I share information___I am unorganized

___I am efficient___I criticize in front of others

___I delegate clearly___I am always late

___I am understanding___I have extreme mood swings

___I respect all staff (up & downwards)___I don’t give positive reinforcement

___I have a good sense of humor___I use people for personal gain

___I am supportive of staff to others___I am a workaholic & expect the
  same from others

___I mentor/teach ___I am a procrastinator

___I empathize with others___I am selfish

___I understand employees have an___I am insincere in attempts to boost
outside life       morale

What Can You Do to Improve Your Skills?

Choose one or two skills to work on at a time. You will not become a better leader in all situations without concentrating on specific skills in situations that are normally uncomfortable for you. Begin with situations that hold little risk for you (e.g., practice giving clear expectations about relatively simple tasks at first). Ask your peers or colleagues for feedback on your skills.

Pick another one or two new skills to practice once you are comfortable with the first ones. Over a matter of months and years you will continually develop your leadership skills.


The best way to learn leadership is to role model yourself after someone you consider an excellent, principled leader. Once you have become more comfortable, be a role model yourself to colleagues, your family and friends.

To reward yourself (!) whenever you succeed at enhancing a leadership skill in situations that are normally uncomfortable for you.


Leadership-A Simple Perspective

The principles of leadership are simple, although not always easy, to implement. Whenever you have difficult management decisions to make, think about the "simple" solutions before making the situation more complex than is necessary.

1.Have a personal and predictable vision and style.

2.Have clear expectations of what your staff should be doing and well understood methods of praising and criticizing their performance.

3.Provide people with real choices (3 or more) whenever possible to give them a sense of control.

4.Incorporate and encourage the use of humor and fun at work to help create positive work memories for your staff.

5.Understand that everyone, including you, is doing what they think is best for them and best for others with the information and skills they have right now.

6.Understand that people only hear/read 20% of what anyone, including you, say. They forget 80% of that within 24 hours. Therefore repeat important instructions, and use verbal and written backups.

7.Understand that people learn up to 7 new things at a time (therefore don't overwhelm them with information). People learn best through experience (50%), through role models and relationships (30%) and through formal education (20%). As a manager you can provide a learning environment where success and mistakes are used as a learning experiences.

Are the right people doing the right things for the right people in the right ways at the right time in the right place at the right cost and for the right reasons?


The following resources are only a few of the many useful resources that you can find in your local libraries, within your own organization, and in your local bookstores. Look for other books but also for journal articles, magazine reports, films, videos and audiocassettes. Also keep in mind how much you can learn from experts in the field, including people within your own organization!

Beck, J., Yeager, D. W., & Yeager, N.M., (1994). The leader’s window: Mastering the four styles of leadership to build high performing teams. Toronto: Wiley & Sons.

Bennis, W. (1994). On becoming a leader. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Blanchard, K., Hybels, B., & Hodges, P. (1999). Leadership by the book: Tools to transform your workplace. New York: William Morrow.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (1995). Leading with soul: An uncommon journey of spirit. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dosick, W. D. (1994). The health care facility/team bible: Ten commandments for creating an ethical workplace. New York: Harperperennial.

Dreher, D. (1996). The Tao of personal leadership. New York: Harper Health care facility/team.

Drucker, P. (1995). Managing in a time of great change. New York: Truman Talley.

Gilkey, R. W. (ed.). (1999). The 21st century health care leader. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Helgesen, S. (1995). The female advantage: Women’s way of leadership. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

James, J. (1996). Thinking in the future tense: Leadership skills for a new age. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Klebe T, L, & Nelson, K A. (1995). Managing health care facility/team ethics: Straight talk about how to do it right. Toronto, ON: Wiley & Sons.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (1996). The leadership challenge: How to keep getting extraordinary things done in organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kriegel, R., & Brandt, D. (1997). Sacred cows make the best burgers: Developing change-ready people and organizations. New York: Warner Books.

Maxwell, J. C. (1999). The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader: Becoming the person others will want to follow. Cheltenham: UK.

Pearson, G. J. (1995). Integrity in organizations: An alternative health care facility/team ethic. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sonnenberg, F. K. (1996). Managing with a conscience: How to improve performance through integrity, trust, and commitment. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Humor and Memories at Work


Much of this section deals with humor, laughter and play at work. We seem to have less difficulty enjoying ourselves with our family and friends. However, many of the ideas presented in this section can be easily used regardless of where you are. If humor is an attitude then it should not be limited to only one environment!

Humor is, above all, an attitude. People who can see humor in everyday situations give off a contagious positive attitude towards life that helps everyone around them. Humor often comes easiest from delight rather than comedy; the delight of a baby's smile, or the delight in sharing a story with someone who will enjoy it.

Laughter is one expression of this humorous attitude. It is one of the most recognizable and easiest communicated expressions of humor. Laughter can also be an expression of other attitudes such as fear or anger. Regardless of its source, laughter can help us feel better and less stressed.

Play is the act of amusing ourselves and, perhaps, other people. Play is a way to search for humor and laughter. It is a way to release some of our self-imposed limits of how we should behave professionally. Most of all, play is the act of searching out wonder, just as some children search for wonder in any and all situations.

Telling jokes or laughing at jokes is not the same thing as having a sense of humor. Jokes are one way of causing us to laugh and the types of jokes we like often reflect our personality or our mood at the time. However, you do not need to be a good joke teller or need to laugh at other people's jokes to enjoy humor, laughter and play!

One of the great lessons of history is to understand that every individual can change the world. A second great lesson is that people who do change their world usually use their sense of humor to go from one day to the next. They use laughter as a mechanism to reduce their anxiety, their fear and their stress.

The third lesson from history is learned by reading biographies. Regardless of the difficulties and joys of one's life there is room for humor, laughter and play to help them. Whether someone is a political hero, a famous singer or actor, or our family and friends, humor, laughter and play are used by most people as a stepping stone to that time in their lives when they become "wise". Wisdom is that body of knowledge gleaned from life’s experience that helps us understand what is, and what is not, important enough to worry about. Wisdom is also the knowledge of what is, and is not, important enough to understand, to laugh about and to learn.

The use of laughter workshops in the work place has become a popular fad. Laughter at work is not a new phenomenon, however. In the history of the world, laughter has been used to express great happiness but also used as a way to deal with horrifying situations, embarrassing situations and to help relieve the tensions of everyday life.

I think in Palliative Care that it is often not the work itself but the colleagues we work with that make things stressful. Each of us comes to work with a strong value and belief system associated with dying. If we can respect each other’s differences and still do the work that is great. Often, however, in the abbreviated timeframe we find ourselves, this degree of collegiality does not persist. To be able to reflect with humor on the tension that passes between us can dissipate some of the stress. One of my favorite physicians is often very strong willed and determining of his and others’ time. If he is not listening to me, I say, “I’m getting my 2x4 out any minute so we can have a talk.” If that doesn’t work, I say, “…time for my 4x4.” He’s come to know this as me drawing a line in terms of his need to listen yet it is a humorous, non-threatening way to get his attention.

Michèle Chaban

Women, men, and children have used laughter in seemingly contradictory places: at weddings and funerals, in concentration camps and at parties, at murder trials and religious services, at work and at play. Laughter, and seeing the humor of the moment, is one of our best techniques for choosing to enjoy life to the fullest. Laughter and humor can also provide us with necessary relief at times of mourning and anxiety.

Used well and often, humor, laughter and play can improve our health, our attitude, and perhaps most importantly, can encourage other people to do the same. Appropriate humor is also one technique that provides support and a way to express understanding to people who are fearful in new or strange settings.

In this section we will not spend a lot of time looking at the historical and theoretical reasons why we should use humor, laughter and play to improve our physical and mental health. Rather, we will concentrate on some of the practical things we can all do to increase the use of humor, laughter and play in our work lives. One only has to look at our friends and colleagues who use appropriate humor, laughter and play to understand that it makes them and us feel better!

When we are teaching others about Palliative Care, we try to use cartoons to capture the essence of our point. I think laughter and humor capture the sacred meaning of things sometimes better if not equal to a philosophical or theological concept.

Michèle Chaban

For laughter and humor to be used regularly at work, people need the permission and encouragement of their peers and supervisors. Without that encouragement, humor, laughter and play will be relegated to cafeterias, storerooms and after work hours when it will be less effective and often used to ridicule individuals dealt with during the day.

Types of Humor

Humor is basically an attitude or perspective we have about life. What one person finds humorous, another will not. Humor that ridicules other people is often destructive of social relations and we should discourage it. Humor can also ridicule yourself and to varying degrees that can be very funny.

Humor is not the same as telling jokes. There are some people who can tell wonderful jokes and make people laugh. Humor, on the other hand, is something from everyday life that makes us laugh, smile and enjoy in the delight. It may be a cartoon. It may be a story that someone has told about what their child did at school yesterday. It may be a secret shared between two people (e.g., one of the persons is pregnant and only one other person in the department knows). It may be the smile that comes from a co-worker or the love from a pet.

People do not usually laugh because they are happy. We often laugh because we want to feel happy and laughing helps us do that. Laughter can create a sense of happiness, then. We use laughter to help us when we are frightened and we use it when we are embarrassed. We use humor to try and get closer to people and we use humor to tell someone we care.

People assume incorrectly that we must have a reason to laugh. Humor and laughter are different things. What we might find humorous may not cause us to laugh. Sometimes we laugh for no apparent reason, and that is okay. We may laugh out of fear, anger, boredom or because our perspective of life sees humor in situations when other people do not.

There are different types of humor that make us smile or laugh. Nonsense or situations that are unbelievable can be very humorous. There are books, cartoons and stories based on:

Political and social satire.

Observing how different people react to life.

Embarrassing moments.

Children’s expressions.

Actions of animals.

There is also the humor that many of us laugh at but that may be inappropriate. Sexist, sexual, ethnic, religious, and sarcastic humor can be enjoyable sometimes and inappropriate at others. For example, "Newfy" jokes are often appropriate because they are an industry in Newfoundland where people make money poking fun at themselves. They are inappropriate when we use them to demean people from Newfoundland in a malicious way just as jokes about people from Holland, Poland, Ireland, or the Caribbean, can be funny or inappropriate.

The gauge of appropriateness of any activity depends on who is telling a joke or describing a situation or doing a playful activity and who is receiving them. Healthy humor, laughter and play depend on everyone enjoying the activity. What may be acceptable in one group of people may not be acceptable in another group. Common courtesy and common sense are usually good judges.

An example of what some people would call inappropriate humor, while others would think is very helpful, is the kind used in television programs like M*A*S*H or in many of our hospitals, police forces, and the military. "Sick" or black humor is often used to reduce the stress experienced in life and death situations. "Outside" people might find the humor used in emergency and operating rooms, in funeral homes or in times of war inappropriate. "Inside" people find this particular type of humor helpful to cope with feelings of sadness and stress.

It is not until we have a visiting scholar or student and I see the look of either horror or delight on their faces that I realize that we are using “sick” humor to deal with some of the situations we find ourselves in. Underneath the sick humor is an understanding for us of the sacredness of that which we speak or else we could not play with it so irreverently. It takes a level of trust between people to do this. It also takes an understanding that life is precious and we would never demean its essence.

Michèle Chaban

The Benefits of Laughter

Appropriate laughter is contagious and brings people together. To learn to laugh more often, it is helpful to watch people who laugh. Four-year old children, for example, laugh on average 500 times a day. (They also know that tears are therapeutic so they cry more often than we do too!) Adults laugh on average 15 times a day but that figure really depends a great deal on the individual, their work and whether they have permission to laugh from their peers and supervisors.

Buddhist monks have equated 15 minutes of good belly laughing to 6-8 hours of meditation. Both forms of stress release have physiological, sociological and psychological benefits; both are appropriate and useful.

Physiological Benefits

Dilates cardiovascular system benefits.

Exercises respiratory system (air leaving the mouth has been clocked at 115 kph); laughing can often lead to coughing which helps stimulate someone who is ill clean out their lungs while reducing the chance of their getting pneumonia.

Muscles relax to the point when people cannot stand up or sit up straight.

Brain and nervous system responses include chemical releases that make us feel good.

Laughter is used as a natural pain relief technique.

Diaphragm contracts to massage internal organs ("internal jogging") similar to sobbing or vomiting, but much more pleasant.

Produces the "healing tears" we find useful at times of real stress, sadness or loss.

Reduces blood pressures to levels below the pressure measured before the laughter.

Sociological Benefits

Helps establish rapport and relationships.

Creates greater group cohesion even in times of group stress.

Reduces social conflict.

Corrects unacceptable behavior by acting as a change agent (e.g., to de-escalate a violent situation, or reduce tensions at a staff meeting).

Improves communication.

Improves co-operation.

Psychological Benefits

Helps in coping with internal stress.


Helps relieve anxiety, stress, tension and embarrassment.

Socially acceptable outlet for anger and frustration.

Helps balance reality for a short time to give people an opportunity to get new energy and gives them time to think.

Lightens heaviness of tragedy, disability, crisis and death.

Final note: When all is said and done about the physiological, sociological and psychological benefits of laughter think of people who laugh a lot. They don't do it because of all the benefits listed above. They don't necessarily do it because they took a workshop in humor or read a book about laughing. They do it as part of their “way of being” because it makes them feel good and it helps other people feel good. You don't really need any more reason than that to increase the amount of laughing you do every day.

Self Examination

Once you know more clearly what it is you enjoy you will be able to find it more often. Asking yourself questions can help you identify what you find humorous.

You can exchange the lists on the next page with your friends and colleagues to see what they like and whether or not you can help provide them with their kind of humor. For example if you know someone enjoys a good Bob Newhart cassette or if you know someone who really gets a chuckle out of Herman cartoons, you might bring some of these along for them to enjoy. People who exchange humorous items and situations find it more enjoyable to come to work!

Exercise #1

1.What do you most enjoy laughing about? Why?

2.When do you laugh most often? Why?

3.What types of cartoons, jokes and situations do you find most humorous?

4.What types of humor do you dislike and how do you discourage it?

5.How do you use humor to feel better, to deal with stress or to cope with an embarrassing situation, grief or loss?

6.How is humor used in your work area now?

Ways to Start

The following is a list of ideas you can use that may increase the humor, team spirit and laughter found in your work areas. In many work areas where humor, laughter and play are often present there is already a team spirit amongst the staff. These ideas are to reinforce this attitude and encourage other ways of enhancing the work atmosphere.

This is not an exhaustive list and there is room at the end for you to write down your own ideas. The ideas are not intended to make everyone in your area fall down laughing but many of them are just little things you can do to bring a smile to someone's face.

As mentioned before, humor, laughter and play only work in a nourishing environment. Your supervisor and peers may be hesitant at first to try certain things because it may appear inappropriate in a professional or work setting. You need people's permission to change their environment and the prevailing attitude of a work area. You may be able to try new things with lots of encouragement from the people around you or you may have to start slowly and build up the trust that is necessary in order for people to laugh openly. There is a lot of history in any work setting and you must be sensitive to it.

From a supervisor's perspective, you must know your staff and get their permission (formal or informal) to try new things. People may suspect a "hidden agenda", such as improving productivity, rather than your good intentions. Again you will need the permission of your own supervisor so that the atmosphere of your work area does not change when your supervisor is present.

Remember that the best starting place is your list of what genuinely makes you smile. Your genuine laughter is what is most contagious.


Increase the amount of times you smile. Smiles are contagious and are the quickest expression of your own mood and disposition.

Body Language

Your body language tells people if you are genuinely enjoying yourself or whether you have read something about humor and are trying to follow someone else's suggestions. Humor, laughter and play work best if you are truly enjoying yourself or if you use humor, laughter and play as a technique to help yourself feel better. Anything else is just acting and may lead people to mistrust your motives.


Give a friendly "hello" to anyone who looks directly at you as you walk down a hallway, especially if you don't know them. I did this one day to someone while waiting for an elevator and their whole face lit up and they looked just a little less frightened than before.

Funny Items

Bring in the odd cartoon, greeting card, poster, mug or quote and share it with those people you think will enjoy it.


Put little surprises on someone/everyone's desk for no apparent reason, e.g., a home baked cookie, a small flower, a humorous card, anything you have made, or an inexpensive gift you thought that person would enjoy. In other words, don't wait for Christmas or a birthday to do something special for someone.


For people who enjoy whistling or singing you might share a song or two while you are working or walking down a hall.

Be Silly"

If you don't mind doing "silly" things, you might wear mix-matched socks or another clothing faux pas to get people's reactions.


Have a favorite toy or stuffed animal by your desk that you can play with or hug when you want to do something totally different. You can even pass along your stuffed animal to a colleague who is having a particularly hard day. Scan a picture of your children or pet into your computer and make it into a screensaver.

Collection Box

Have a special box where people can put in their favorite cartoon, quote, baby picture, or their most outrageous story from a tabloid newspaper. After a set period (e.g., one month) the best can be collected in a department or area book for distribution with a lottery to determine a winner of a special prize.


Consider putting adult comic books (e.g., Herman, Garfield) in your lobby and waiting areas.

Secret Pal

Have people put their names, birthday, workplace anniversary date and a short list of things they like (e.g., sports, chocolate, special post cards) in a draw. Over a period of 3 - 6 months your secret pal may send you a gift at home, leave it on your desk or send a birthday/Valentine's card months early as a surprise.

Get Others Involved

Offer the people you work with something special that they do not have to "earn" and that they get for just being themselves (e.g., a quick private walk with just the two of you during a break or slow period, or a gift of their favorite food).

Special Pre-Arranged Events


Have a lottery every month amongst the staff and whoever wins gets a part of the day or the whole day off with the other staff members covering for that person. The winner's name is removed from the lottery next time so that everyone gets a fair chance at winning.


Have a casual Friday when people can dress as they like as long as it meets standards of cleanliness and good fun. Include others in this event if you choose a well-advertised theme day to enhance your public relations while boosting internal morale.


Rather than wait for Christmas and other holidays, have a choir go around work singing a few tunes every few months.

Special Skills

Encourage staff who have special skills (e.g., juggling, singing, playing an instrument, arts and crafts, drama, magic tricks) to use them more often for the benefit of others. Teach each other these skills.


Bring in a humorous video or cassette once a month during a staff lunch break. People bring their own lunch and get a chuckle at the same time.


Rather than waiting for someone to retire or leave, hold a special party or roast for someone on their birthday, their anniversary in your department, or after a particularly difficult assignment.

Welcoming Party

Again, rather than wait until someone leaves, have a special welcoming party for new staff members and use the occasion to pass along some praise to present staff as well.

Compliment Box

Display a compliment box where anyone can put in an extra compliment for something that someone did for them. Have a draw at the end of the week/month to give the winning staff member a "Dinner-for-Two" coupon or other prize.

5th Tuesday

Any time there is a fifth Tuesday (or any other day you choose) in a month have a special activity, e.g., longer lunches, potluck lunch in your area, or something else special to your group.

Change of Season Party

Celebrate a change of season with a potluck lunch with foods representative of the new season.

Joint Self-Help Project

Have a special joint project to encourage even more teamwork, e.g., everyone agree to lose whatever amount of weight they would like to and provide support to each other.

Skills Exchange

Everyone lists skills they have that they are willing to share in exchange for learning a new skill from someone else, e.g., one person teaches others to cook special dinners, someone else teaches people to play guitar, and someone else teaches home renovations.

Health Care Facility/Team Cards

Have someone design a special health care facility/team card for your area and get them printed. People could design funny cards to give to family and friends or a more serious card to use at conferences or while traveling.

Special Notes


When situations get tense examine the way the situation is versus the way it appears. Is there any element that lends itself to humor? There are many situations at work and in our personal lives that are not funny. However, there may be elements in those situations that can be humorous and that we can use to help relieve some of the stress. Is there a way you will describe this situation in a day/week/year that may be humorous?

Earlier in my career as a management consultant I was working part-time with an education and organizational developmental department in a teaching hospital. While on vacation, my office was moved away from the rest of the team as a necessary, cost-cutting exercise. My colleagues knew that I would not be pleased to return from vacation to find I was separated from the best working team that I had ever worked with. To ease the adjustment, they bought a corner store Elvis bust and placed it on my new desk. They put small, flashing Christmas tree lights around him. When I opened my new office door for the first time, the room was dark except for Elvis appearing to rise above my desk. It was wonderful! It was very thoughtful and led to a 10-year running joke within the hospital. As word spread of Elvis’ visitation to my office, people I had never met before came to my new office to introduce themselves and wish me well. Long after I left that job (leaving Elvis behind), he was spotted in various parts of the hospital. A short-run Elvis newsletter was circulated telling people where he might be found and his favorite peanut butter and banana sandwich recipes. Going back recently for a going away party for a past colleague, people I hadn’t seen in 10 years came up to tell me of Elvis’ recent sightings.

When you incorporate humor into your working attitude it has immediate benefits but also encourages the development of long-term memories that are comforting and bring a smile to your face years later.

Harry van Bommel

When my wisdom teeth were removed, post-op went badly. I needed to make an emergency visit to my dentist. Making a dash through the crowded waiting room with most of my face covered by ugly purple bruising was not funny at the time but somehow seems funnier now.

Beverley Powell-Vinden

Sense of Humor

People have different senses of humor. Before trying anything too extravagant, find out what people enjoy and what people find very uncomfortable. A surprise party for someone's birthday may be a wonderful joy to one person and extremely embarrassing to someone else.

Discouraging Inappropriate Humor

Sometimes, people who you like or people in a position of authority over you will use inappropriate humor, e.g., sexist, racist, or humor that ridicules people. Discouraging this kind of humor is difficult. Depending on whom the person is you can decide:

Not to laugh at all.

To talk to the person later on about how their humor makes you feel.

To talk to the person right away to tell them their humor is upsetting and that you would prefer they not use it when you are around.

To use appropriate humor yourself to "instruct" the person in how good humor is just as funny as inappropriate humor.

Exercise #2

How to Help Others

You can use this exercise to help you remember what you have learned and to identify ways that you can help others through humor, laughter and play.

1.List three new ways you can use laughter and play in your work to reduce stress.

2.How can you use laughter and play to improve relationships with your colleagues or clients?

3.List some of the physiological, sociological and psychological benefits of laughter that are meaningful to you.

4.When are humor, laughter and play inappropriate and how can you discourage it or change it?

5.What will you do today and tomorrow to use some of the information you have learned so far?

6.Many people use humor, laughter and play to cope with stress. Having this knowledge, how can we help them?


The kind of humor we have been talking about goes beyond jokes and even beyond laughter. We are talking about looking at life in a humorous and playful way. Humor, laughter and play are natural ways of showing that we are happy or have fear, anxiety and embarrassment. It is our own method of coping with life's ups and downs.

An integral part of humor, laughter and play is to look for, and enjoy, the wonder of life. There are so many instances where we can find something wonderful to be in awe of. Children do this every day but many of us are too busy to take the time to look. One of the greatest tools for stress management is to always search for wonderment. If you have trouble finding wonder, take an expert with you who thrives on this kind of adventure; perhaps a child, an older person who has experienced much but still searches for more, or perhaps the adventuresome childlike person inside you!

Humor, laughter and play are not always our top priorities. They are, however, skills that can improve with practice and by encouraging others to do the same. With the permission of those around us we can try many of the practical ideas listed in this section to enhance the playfulness of the people we work with, live with and spend time with.

One of the best philosophic summaries about living life fully and joyfully comes from Robert Fulghum, an American who has been a bartender, folk singer, cowboy, sale representative and now a minister. He wrote a short book titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. His perspective learned in Kindergarten is:

Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life -- learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work everyday some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder.


The following resources are only a few of the many useful resources that you can find in your local libraries, within your own organization, and in your local bookstores. Look for other books but also for journal articles, magazine reports, films, videos and audiocassettes. Also keep in mind how much you can learn from experts in the field, including people within your own organization!

Chapman, A. J., Foot, H. C., & Derks, P. (Eds.) (1996). Humor and laughter: Theory, research, and applications. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishing.

Cousins, N. (1981). Anatomy of an illness as perceived by the patient. New York: Bantam.

Gruner, C R. (1997). The game of humor: A comprehensive theory of why we laugh. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishing.

Klein, A. (1989). The healing power of humor: Techniques for getting through loss, setbacks, upsets, disappointments, difficulties, trials, tribulations, and all that. Los Angeles: J.P.Tarcher.

McGhee, P.E. (1979). Humor: Its origin and development. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

Metcalfe, C.W., & Felible, R. (1993). Lighten up: Survival skills for people under pressure. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Wickberg, D. (1998). The senses of humor: Self and laughter in modern America. Hartford, CT: Cornell University Press.

Wooten, P. (1996). Compassionate laughter: Jest for your health! Mount Shasta, CA: Commune-A-Key.

Practical Leadership

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Copyright © 2000 Harry van Bommel

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