Originally published on LinkedIn on September 29, 2018
The laughter was the tell. I’d hardly been with the team five minutes before I realised something was up. Partly it was the way they listened, like what I said actually mattered. Partly it was the way they waited on my opinion, allowing me freedom to shape the discussion. Mostly, though, it was the way they laughed at my jokes. My new role had not just conferred a higher salary, status and title - it had, apparently, made me funny.
So was the scene over ten years ago, when I became a team leader for the first time. Back then, I found the newfound deference flattering, fascinating, and ever so slightly dangerous. What was going on here? Had I really become a better, more confident and amusing communicator overnight? Well, no. And yes.
No, because of course I myself had not really changed at all. I was still the same person, with the same strengths and weaknesses - and certainly the same sense of humour, for whatever that was worth - as before my promotion. But yes, because something really had changed: the power dynamic present in all work relationships.
Previously, before deciding whether to speak up I had been accustomed to screen my comments through a double filter. Filter 1 was about finding the right words. Filter 2 was scanning the mood of the room to gauge how people might respond. Being at the shallower end of the power dynamic, the second of these filters was dominant. By an unspoken office survival instinct, much as I wished to get my point across, even more important was avoiding a negative reaction from those wielding power over me.
Installed as team leader, though, I experienced a new kind of generosity - a friendly bias that interpreted my views in a more positive light. Filter 2 was still there but much less powerful. I no longer spent half my mental energy on an internal process of self-censorship. As a result, I found myself being more, well, myself. Funny just came as part of the package.
I recognise now that what was true for me back then is true for all leaders, especially at higher levels. I have gone on to work to four CEOs. Personality-wise, they could hardly be more different. Yet employees have seemingly found each as amusing as the last. Doubtless anxiety-giggles is a factor here. But, to me, even more important is the power dynamic. The relative power of the CEO allows them to fully dial down Filter 2 and let their personality - humour at all - shine through.
When the first of these CEOs retired, he summed up his long spell in the top job in a single word: “privilege”. He was right. It’s a privilege to be able to speak freely, to receive unearned generosity, to be treated with deference and to have your decisions given the benefit of the doubt. It’s a privilege, in short, to allowed to be yourself at work while others labour through barriers unseen. For the sake of the organisation, it’s a privilege that in my view leaders should work consciously and consistently to extend to those around them. And that's no joke.