Workplace humor has gotten a bad rap in recent years. We have witnessed the benign awkwardness of pop culture figures (ex: Michael Scott on the sitcom The Office) and seen the transgressions that led to Senator Al Franken’s resignation. Many have become hyperaware of the risks of bringing humor into a work setting. And yet, humor can be a positive force in the office.
Workplace humor, used appropriately, can be an extremely powerful tool. In this article, we’ll try to resurrect the art of workplace humor by focusing on its benefits and share strategies for practicing it effectively.
The Benefits of Laughter
Many benefits of laughter in the workplace come down to the science of laughter. Laughter has profound neurochemical effects; science has consistently demonstrated the psychological benefits of humor. These include natural anti-anxiety and antidepressant consequences.
Laughter also heals you in other systemic ways. Physical activity gives you a burst of oxygen-rich air, which stimulates your major organs and your brain. This has been demonstrated to improve the health of your immune system long-term.
Working with difficult people and/or being under tight deadlines can be stressful and lead to productivity-impeding negative thoughts. Negative thoughts and emotions can trigger more stress. Laughter can release neuropeptides, which combat stress and other forms of illness. Laughter has been demonstrated to have positive pain-relieving effects and other overall positive effects on mood and personal satisfaction.
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Humor in the Workplace
Of course, these benefits translate into other positive outcomes – professionally and socially. Laughter can boost productivity, problem-solving, and creative thinking. In other words, humor in the workplace can make you, your colleagues, and your team more effective.
But the power of humor in the workplace is ultimately collective and relational. Humor in the workplace has the power to put employees at ease around one another and to cut through the tension that teams inevitably face. Workplace humor is also a compelling tool for bonding, team-building, and morale-boosting.
These connections are what turn a disparate group of individuals into a cohesive team. And creating this kind of collaborative environment empowers people to be the best workers and teammates they can be.
Leveraging Workplace Humor as a Management Skill
Many managers have recognized and attempted to tap into the potential workplace humor offers as a management skill. The powerful effects humor exerts on people makes it a desirable force in any manager’s tool belt. Who wouldn’t want the ability to set their teams at ease in stressful times and to help employees function as a collaborative system?
However, bringing humor into the workplace is much easier said than done. There are a few important strategies and risks managers would be wise to keep in mind as they attempt to harness the power of workplace humor.
Understand the Physics of Humor
Freud famously defined humor as “making the meaningful meaningless, and/or making the meaningless meaningful.” We can also say that humor provides a psychological and social mechanism for providing additional perspectives and tones. This is part of the reason it’s effective at dealing with crises, problems, negative emotions, etc.
Another factor at play in the phenomenon of humor is the human’s spontaneous response to surprise. The basic setup-punchline structure of a joke can be reduced to a basic expectation-surprise formula. Of course, the deepest humor then follows the surprise with some kind of recognition. Humor is perhaps most useful in exposing the folly of the human ego. Recognizing our own folly is some of the deepest therapy humor can provide.
Avoid “Punching Down”
Humor has the power to draw lines of inclusion and exclusion. Those in on the joke are included; those who are the butt of the joke are excluded. We are much more comfortable with humor that “punches up” (i.e., uses someone more powerful as the object of the joke) than humor that “punches down” (i.e., perpetuates existing power imbalances).
There are exceptions, and humor can of course be based on mistaken or malicious interpretations of power dynamics. A safe strategy is to avoid humor that makes anyone the object of the joke, except possibly yourself. Self-deprecating humor, especially on the part of powerful people (like management), can be a powerful means of creating cohesiveness and cutting through tension. However, self-deprecating humor – like all humor – can be used wrongly, hurtfully, and inappropriately.
Watch your Ego
One good test for whether an attempt at humor will succeed or backfire is to examine your motivations. Are you trying to bring more humor into other people’s lives? Are you trying to achieve something funny so people will hold you in a higher regard? Or are you trying to use humor to harm or exploit someone else, so as to enlarge yourself? Remember that the fundamental point of humor is to help heal the human ego – not to serve it. If your effort at humor comes from a self-serving place, it will not succeed.
It’s true that humor involves some inherent degree of risk that cannot be eradicated from humor. But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from it in the workplace, especially since our work can be the biggest source of stress in our lives. Workplace humor can help managers and employees build more effective teams and operate in a more humorous – and therefore more harmonious – environment.
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