No Joke: Humor Is Vital to Workplace Culture

by Nathan Gilroy


Comic actor Charlie Chaplin famously said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” This philosophy can be applied directly to the workplace.

A Gallup study found that people laugh significantly less on weekdays than on weekends. And a study by Happify found that millennials — who represent the largest generation in the U.S. workforce — are obsessed with their jobs, something that contributes to stress and a relatively negative state of mind. But the office doesn’t have to be all work and no play. Injecting a little fun into the workplace can help make employees more engaged, positive, connected and productive — all of which contribute to organizational success and the creation of a high-performance culture.

In fact, humor is valued by higher-ups: A Robert Half International survey found that 91 percent of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement, while 84 percent feel that people with a good sense of humor perform better in their job. The ability to be funny is also associated with intelligence and creativity. And since these are highly valued qualities in the workplace, it makes sense that humor could be have a positive impact on an employee’s performance.

Creating a strong workplace culture where employees and managers feel comfortable sharing a joke, giving each other open and honest feedback, and working closely together not only builds relationships but also helps improve communication and productivity. All of these things give an organization an edge on the competition. That means humor in the workplace is no laughing matter. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of tickling the funny bone.

A Prescription for Productivity: Laugh More at Work

The expression “laughter is the best medicine” is more than just a cliché. The Mayo Clinic is one of many healthcare clinics singing the praises of a good giggle with friends, family and colleagues. Laughter actually has many proven health benefits.

Among its short-term effects, laughter lowers blood pressure; gives the diaphragm, abs and facial muscles a workout; and reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Its long-term effects include improving the immune system, which, in turn, lowers workplace absenteeism; reducing physical symptoms associated with stress; and improving mood by lowering anxiety.

Four Different Styles of Funny

Humor is deep seated in history, and it’s now believed that humor comes from the higher levels of the brain. According to Psychology Today, researchers have distinguished four types of humor:

1. Affiliative humor — used to enhance one’s relationships with others. This may consist of telling a joke, or partaking in witty banter to improve relationships with others.

2. Self-enhancing humor — a “bright side of things”-type of humor. It can be used to defuse a trying situation and add a positive spin on things.

3. Aggressive humor — characterized by the use of sarcasm, put-downs, teasing, criticism, ridicule and other types of humor used at the expense of others.

4. Self-defeating humor — humor at one’s own expense. It may be a way to gain approval from others by making oneself the “butt” of the joke.

Which type of humor works best in the workplace or with colleagues? Well, context is important, but on the whole, affiliative, self-enhancing and self-defeating humor tend to yield the most positive outcomes. Because of its inclusive nature, affiliative humor has been shown to increase group cohesiveness, nurture interpersonal relationships and enhance learning. Self-enhancing humor can promote creativity and reduce stress as it tends to encourage people to change their perceptions of negative situations. And, finally, self-defeating humor shows flexibility and that people don’t always take themselves so seriously, which is a valuable leadership quality.

Aggressive humor is the least beneficial to a work culture since its primary function is to segregate and boost oneself by bringing down someone else. In fact, it may be considered a form of harassment, and should be actively discouraged.

The bottom line: Humor in the workplace works only works if employees work at building trusting relationships and communicating clearly. Managers in particular must work on their conversational skills, leadership abilities and mentoring savvy.

When it comes to leadership, studies show that teams perform better under leaders who make high use of humor. For one, humor helps bridge the social distance between leaders and their employees or peers. By sharing a laugh with employees, leaders fortify their social influence, enabling them to achieve their transactional and relational goals. After all, people are more inclined to go the extra mile for someone they like.

Leaders who use humor also help lower their teams’ anxiety and stress levels. When people have a good laugh, they release tension, enabling them to concentrate on their work more efficiently. This can be particularly effective when discussing performance. Making a joke about something that went wrong — as long as it doesn’t come across as mean-spirited — can help put a mishap in perspective. Leaders who also share their own funny stories of workplace mistakes are not only seen as more human but also build a better rapport with their employees.

Humor doesn’t help only leaders gain influence. Employees can also use humor as an effective discourse strategy to challenge their superiors. Sometimes, a light jab about a certain decision or task can open a dialogue about an issue that may have otherwise gone unvoiced.

Smile for Success

Humor can certainly help lighten the atmosphere at work, but it can also help improve communication, improve interpersonal relationships, and promote engagement and happiness among employees. Because people are an organization’s biggest competitive advantage, this can make an enormous difference to a company’s bottom line.

Having a fun workplace, then, is much more than just a way to make Mondays a little brighter. By creating a culture that encourages open dialogue, constructive feedback, teamwork and a good laugh, a company shows it’s investing in its employees and cares about their success. And that will make any employee smile.

The Key to a Good Joke

In the 2014 book The Humor Code, authors Peter McGraw, Ph.D., and Joel Warner set out around the world to discover what makes things funny. While they note that humor is very subjective, they do have some recommendations to help people be funny while still being work-appropriate:

  1. When telling a joke, be honest and authentic. People can spot a phony a mile away.
  2. It doesn’t have to be “ha-ha” funny; it can be “aha!” funny. Cleverness is sometimes good enough.
  3. Good comedy is a conspiracy. Create team and organizational in-jokes.
  4. It pays to chuckle at yourself because it signals to the team that everything is OK.
  5. Laughter is disarming. Poke fun at the stuff everyone’s worried about.

Just remember to be honest and respectful when making a joke, and pay attention to how people react. To tell if an employee’s laughter is real, the answer is in the eyes. A true laugh will come with a smile that crinkles the skin around the eyes — a “Duchenne” smile, so named because of the French physician who identified it.

Nathan Gilroy is a regional manager at Halogen Software. He helps HR professionals plan and implement customizable solutions to improve their talent management processes to achieve measurable business outcomes. Halogen Software’s talent management solutions help companies put next-generation performance management at the heart of their talent strategy. This ensures all talent programs — recruitment, learning, succession and compensation — are connected to and reinforce improved, ongoing performance and brilliant business outcomes.


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