Do you have to be serious to gain respect at work?

Business requires serious work, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. Whether you want to bring fun into your workplace is a choice, but the deeper layer of why people are afraid to have fun at work is the belief that you can only garner respect in the workplace when you are serious… and if you’re not serious, you’ll be disrespected or disrespect others. This idea begs the question: Is seriousness a prerequisite to earning respect?

This idea that “I have to show seriousness to be respected” is a flawed leadership style. It isn’t human. It belongs to the past and should never come back. This archaic style of command-and-control leadership that’s all about seriousness no longer serves us. Nobody wants to be subjected to an authoritative style of leadership that rules in power and fear, especially in the workplace.  

Fear and respect are two very different things. Fear is forced and means “to be afraid of” while respect is earned and means “to admire or look up to.” Leaders often project seriousness to demand respect. However, if people follow you because you are known for your seriousness, it’s more likely that they fear you, not because they respect you. 

Don’t take yourself so seriously—your people will love you for it.

You don’t have to put on a facade of seriousness to make people listen to you and respect you. What people actually yearn for in their leaders is authenticity. They want leaders who are authentic and human.  A ResearchGate study shows that authentic leadership is the biggest predictor of a worker’s job satisfaction, commitment and happiness in the workplace. What people want—and need—are human leaders who are self-aware and can connect better with their people.

While a leader and employees should be focused at work, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor or that you can’t laugh with your team. In fact, research shows that leaders with any sense of humor are seen by their employees as 27% more motivating and admirable than those who don’t joke around. 

We are even biologically made to respond to humor in ways that benefit us and our team culture. When we laugh with our colleagues, our brains release a cocktail of hormones (dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins) that not only make us feel happier and less stressed but also more trusting. Laughter creates a chemical reaction in our brain that expedites feelings of trust, closeness and even comfort.

This doesn’t mean you have to crack jokes for the sake of sounding funny; instead, it’s about finding humor in your day-to-day life and sharing it with your team. It always comes down to how you make other people feel. A joke should never be at the expense of others but should be about making your employees feel more relaxed, at ease and lighthearted. 

Do we consider leaders who bring humor to the table as disrespectful or not worthy of respect?

We don’t. We have been conditioned to believe that business is serious work and that leaders should always behave like they’re in a board meeting. In reality, there are people in business that we respect who don’t take themselves so seriously, and it’s because the way we perceive business has morphed drastically, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Serial entrepreneur Miki Agrawal, for example, shaped Hello Tushy’s success with humor and by being charmingly irreverent–unapologetically using poop jokes. And Tushy’s way of talking openly about bathroom matters sets it apart from its competitors.

And then there’s Mark Manson. He wrote the well-known book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck” and the cussing does not stop at the title. Yet he is hired to speak at business conferences worldwide. 

Who doesn’t know Sara Blakely? She launched her billion-dollar empire using humor. Sara believes that knowing how to laugh at yourself and using humor in business is so important. She even rented out a comedy club for a day to have every employee at SPANX get on stage. 

These are just a few examples of why it’s time to let go of this antiquated idea that you have to be serious in order to be respected. People crave realness. Don’t be afraid to add a daily dose of humor at work. 😉 Humor isn’t just for fun: It’s also a critical leadership skill that people will admire you for, and remember that to admire is to respect. After all, who doesn’t love a good laugh? 

In love and respect,

Hilary Corna

Hilary Corna

Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Podcast Host, Founder of the Human Way ™...

Hilary’s favorite title is HUMAN.


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I am starting a revolution. One business and one person at a time.



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