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There’s no better way to top your list of most embarrassing moments than by going out on a limb with a joke at a meeting, only to have it fall flat. Or worse, cause offense.
Yet, still we try. Why? Humor adds a much-needed dose of humanity, even, or especially, when it falls a little short.
Attempting humor in any situation, especially when you don’t know people well, can be risky. And the workplace is often full of relationship dynamics that make certain types of humor riskier than others.
But done correctly, humor in the workplace can be a powerful force for good. Using the right kind and amount of humor at work can have several key benefits.
Let’s take a closer look at when and how humor adds value to the workplace and when it doesn’t. Plus, let’s discuss how you can bring more laughter to your work life in a productive way.
Laughter truly is one of the best medicines. In fact, dentists have prescribed a daily dose of laughing to ease pain and stress. It’s also a contagious way to spread a little extra joy around a room.
But there are many ways to get people to laugh, and not all are acceptable at work. So how do you define humor and being humorous, especially within a workplace environment?
What does humor and being humorous mean?
Humor means different things to different people. Researchers at the Academy of Management identified four main humor styles in the workplace.
- Affiliative humor. This includes funny personal stories and jokes that enhance social interaction. This kind of humor helps ease social tensions. Consider this a light-hearted type of humor.
- Self-enhancing humor. This style of humor can help people deal with stress by staying positive. People who always look for a bit of joy in a stressful or distressing situation tend to rely on self-enhancing humor.
- Aggressive humor. People who use aggressive humor rely on jokes or humiliation to manipulate others. This is the kind of joking that makes one person feel better at another’s expense.
- Self-defeating humor. The person who regularly puts themselves down in a humorous way is using this humor style. When used correctly, it can help make you feel more approachable. If you overdo it, however, you risk reducing your status in the eyes of peers and leaders.
10 benefits of humor in the workplace
Everyone can appreciate how good it feels to let a deep belly laugh take over. And yet, we tend to laugh less and less as we age.
According to a Gallup survey, by age 23, the rate of laughter per day decreases dramatically. The average 4-year-old laughs up to 300 times a day. The average 40-year-old only laughs about three times per day.
A bout of laughter has some important short and long-term effects. The Journal of Managerial Psychology ran a meta-analysis on positive humor in the workplace.
They found that the benefits of using humor at work include:
- A lighter mood
- Reduced stress
- Faster interpersonal bonding
- A greater sense of belonging at work
- Better perceived leader performance
- Overall workplace cohesion
- Improved mental health
- Closer relationships
- Reduced inhibitions
- More happily resolved disagreements
Great leaders can pick up on these benefits of humor at work too. A Robert Half study shows that almost 80% of CFOs say that a sense of humor plays a role in how employees fit into a company’s culture.
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While humor can bring more joy, too much or inappropriate humor in the workplace can actually negate the positive effects of humor at work.
Ultimately, managers and company leaders set the tone for humor in the workplace. Part of the mission to be an inclusive leader is to know how far to take jokes with coworkers. It really comes down to self-awareness.
Company leaders (or employees) may lack the awareness to know when to stop joking or when they are using negative humor.
They may offend others or make an inappropriate joke. As a result, they can create an isolating environment for coworkers who don’t feel “in” on the joke.
Sarcasm, in particular, especially at the expense of one or more employees or coworkers, can have a corrosive effect. Over time, a person’s sense of self-worth and belonging at work will degrade.
One University of Singapore study of 400 workers in the U.S. and China looked at the effects of humor used by leaders at work. Researchers concluded that aggressive humor, such as teasing, can cause followers to practice deviant behavior.
Deviant behavior is measured on the Bennett & Robinson 19-point-scale of deviance. It includes actions like more coworker teasing and even stealing from work.
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So how can you add more humor in the workplace without forcing it? Let’s dive into six ways to bring more laughter to the office, whether you work in-person or remotely.
1. Start with yourself
First things first, it’s important not to take yourself too seriously. Instead, try a bit of self-deprecating humor.
One study looked at how self-deprecating humor functions at work. It turns out that when both leaders and employees share self-deprecating humor, the employees respect their leaders more.
2. Share funny videos, photos, and quotes with colleagues
These days, there is an unending supply of laugh-out-loud funny internet content. You can easily look up humor in the workplace quotes to find work-appropriate memes and quotes you can share with your coworkers.
Sharing the content you love with others can help you bond with coworkers that have similar senses of humor.
Of course, there’s a time and a place for everything, and every meeting doesn’t have to be a series of Instagram memes.
3. Share a funny story that happened to you
Sharing about your life outside of work can also help people get to know you better and feel more connected. And if there’s a mildly embarrassing anecdote to share, it’s also a great opportunity to show that you don’t take yourself too seriously.
4. Engage in a fun game
There are plenty of workplace games that can inject more laughter into your day. Maybe your team wants to take a break on a sunny day to stretch their legs and play a quick cornhole tournament.
Or maybe you start your next weekly meeting with a quick round of two truths and a lie. Fun, non-competitive games like this can be a great way to lighten the mood and help people bond.
5. Use humor to defuse conflicts
Conflicts between coworkers or clients are never fun. Instead of letting a disagreement pull you further into a negative place, try some humor to lighten tensions and move forward in a positive way.
6. Start a meeting on a fun note
Set the tone of your next important meeting with a fun surprise. Maybe you bring your favorite childhood snacks or play a funny video before your presentation.
When used correctly, humor in the workplace can be a boon to company morale.
However, workplace humor dances on a fine line. Everyone from entry-level workers to C-suite executives should be aware of how to use humor for good at work.
Together, professional teams can work to develop a great sense of humor and a healthy approach to humor at work. And like most initiatives in the workplace, it starts from the top.
At BetterUp, we help individuals and corporations strike a healthy balance of humor at work to produce a positive, engaging, and fun work environment for everyone.
See how our coaching solutions can help your team laugh together and stay together.
Sr. Insights Manager