The boss among friends: try laughter and hats
A fascinating theory about why humans laugh got me thinking about student media leaders. In “How the Mind Works,” Steven Pinker describes research showing that friends laugh a lot, even though they usually don’t say anything particularly funny. Pinker theorizes that laughter is a signal that “I’m not trying to dominate you.”
(That’s my paraphrase. Please read the book if you really want to nail it down.)
Friends laugh at each other’s comments, including mild teasing. If you try a mild tease or self-deprecating humor on a newcomer and she doesn’t crack a smile, you start thinking about which of you has more status and/or authority.
Which brings us back to student media leaders, who quite often are friends with many of the people over whom they have authority in the newsroom. They quickly learn that their “authority” really amounts to their ability to persuade and inspire. In that case, it makes sense to me to send signals that “I’m not trying to dominate you.” So laugh. (And wouldn’t you rather work with someone who laughs than someone who always is deadly serious?)
And for those times when you truly have to be the boss, I recommend transparency in the form of a metaphorical hat. If it’s three minutes to deadline and your friends still haven’t settled the big headline on Page 1, you may say, “Guys, I’ve got to put on my editor-in-chief hat so we can put out the paper on time. I’m choosing that headline. Thanks, and now I’ll take off my hat.”
I also think it’s smart to communicate to your friends (and everyone, for that matter) that you know your title doesn’t mean you’re necessarily the best at everything. Someone else COULD have gotten your job, after all. (Yes, really!) The first time that I pinch-hit for the editor who usually made the final calls on the Metro section at a large newspaper, some question came up in the evening page planning meeting about the section front. I was fairly new, and lots of people in the room had worked there much longer. I said something like, “OK, it may have been foolish, but someone put me in this chair tonight to make this choice. So I’m choosing (whatever).” Everyone seemed satisfied. They didn’t necessarily agree with me, but I had avoided saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I had made it clear that, “Hey, I’m just the guy with the editor hat right now.”
I guess the message here is get a funny hat. If you’re laughing at that weak excuse for a punch line, we must be friends!