Managers who know when to have a laugh and not take themselves too seriously tend to be some of the best. Their joie de vivre makes for a happy workplace and fosters healthy relationships with their team.
We will all have experienced occasions, however, when a manager has inappropriately bookended a far from light-hearted message with quiet chuckles. This is what is known as laughter padding – and it can be far from funny!
Laughter padding is a very common reflex that its perpetrators use without even realising they are doing it.
Much of the time, this innate need to smile or laugh can emerge in managers or executives who have to discuss something uncomfortable, deliver unfavourable news, or ask something of someone they suspect that individual will not want to do. And the problem with this tic is that it may undermine their authority.
Now, it is not uncommon for managers to feel a bit out of their depth. A recent study found that managers significantly lacked confidence in their ability to talk about potentially sensitive issues such as work flexibility and employee wellbeing. These are the situations when the laughter padding reflex can kick in.
In their subconscious they are trying to ‘soften the blow’ of their words by padding them with laughter – but to the person receiving the message this can easily be perceived as the manager failing to take the issue seriously; ‘This is no laughing matter!’
This can lead to a range of communication issues with a senior member of staff and their team. The urgency of a request, or the clarity of feedback, will be at risk of falling flat, and these problems that could have been avoided are now being given the opportunity to snowball.
So, what can a manager do to prevent this?
A lot of the time, a person doing this habitually will probably be nervous to some degree. The fear of having to speak publicly, known as glossophobia, is a very common one, with up to 75% of the population being affected by it. In this situation, a management coach would be able to help them improve their confidence by guiding them in understanding why this laughter padding response is being triggered.
Interestingly, the reflex is believed to stem from humans’ instinctive need to gasp for air to oxygenate the muscles. We take deep breaths to prepare for an emergency or in the face of danger, and in these scenarios the ‘danger’ would be the possible repercussions of telling someone off or speaking in a difficult circumstance.
To combat this, a coach might suggest that if the manager knows they are going to have to have a conversation that they suspect may not be well-received, they rehearse what they are going to say. Practicing it a couple of times will make it easier to approach the discussion.
As well as this, a coach will help them to distinguish when it is and isn’t appropriate to laughter pad. The reality is, laughter padding in the right context is a great tool to increase managerial approachability. But the key to this is chuckling when it is more genuine, and fits well with the tone of the conversation. This way, when they are having to have a more difficult discussion and are not padding it, the person listening will realise that this is a more serious situation.
It's all about finding that balance, so if you think you or your managers might be laughter padders, you can reach out to our team of coaches for help in turning laughter into a leadership asset – not a derailer.
Copyright OrgShakers: The global HR consultancy for workplace transformation founded by David Fairhurst in 2020