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Humour in the workplace

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

Research has found that there is a striking correlation between reaching working age and a decline in how much we laugh each day. It appears that we laugh significantly less once we hit the age of 23 and studies suggest that we do not return to our naturally smiling selves until the age of 70 or 80.

This has led psychology researchers to further investigate the effects of humour in the workplace. Whilst many of us seem to have traded in laughter for professionalism and astute reputations, humour is closely interlocked with power and status which when used effectively can help some climb the hierarchy.

Sunglasses humour at work

Benefits of humour in the workplace

When we laugh and smile together it builds connection, which is why humour has the ability to bring us closer to those around us. It can aid us in building trust with our colleagues and improve working relationships which in turn leads to increased performance both for individuals and teams, higher work satisfaction and better overall well-being.

Sarcasm, in particular, has been shown to increase creativity as it requires higher-level abstract thinking to interpret.

Moreover, successful attempts at humour signals high competence and confidence, which is why it has such a big impact on status within the group. It can lead those around you to be more likely to want to interact with you in the future, believe you will be more effective at leading and it is a great way to demonstrate authenticity.

Having a good laugh with colleagues can build connection and provide entertainment but it is also important to be aware of the dangers and caveats of cracking a joke in the wrong context.

Humour can be dangerous and can whip up a storm at work

Dangers of humour in the workplace

Whilst successful attempts can lead to increased status, a joke that falls flat can quickly harm our professional reputations as it signals low competence and low intelligence. Humour is idiosyncratic, so something which may be funny to you may be viewed by others as inappropriate for the context.

To make things even trickier, it is not always possible to tell whether a joke has been received well or not by those around you. Many may opt to politely laugh along, even though they may think it was inappropriate or unfunny, creating an unreliable feedback loop. This is even more pertinent for those in a leadership position as others may be eager to appease and research has confirmed that unsuccessful attempts at humour by leaders is particularly harmful to how others perceive their competence.

Interestingly, unsuccessful attempts at humour still signify high confidence, as others recognise the courage the teller had to attempt humour in the first place.

Humour and gender inequality

Although research has contributed significantly to our understanding of the benefits and dangers of humour in the workplace, one important factor is frequently overlooked. Gender. Many studies have only considered the effects for men and while research shows that humour can be used to increase status for men, women who use humour in the workplace are ascribed lower status than their non-humorous female colleagues.

Women using humour in the workplace have seen effects on performance evaluations and in how others perceive their leadership capability. However, knowledge of this bias can encourage us to check our own responses to our colleagues humour attempts and take steps to address it.

Setting healthy boundaries for humour in the workplace

Boundaries of workplace humour

Successful humour will be different for everyone and depends on a number of contextual factors. Despite boosting creativity, attempts at sarcasm can be associated with higher perceived conflict and while self-deprecating jokes can be great at breaking down walls with peers, they may diminish your credibility if made in front of executives.

So how can we tell where the boundary is?

Well, it’s important to remember that we don’t always understand others life experiences which largely contributes to how we interpret humour. A comment may be a trigger for someone else, even if it doesn’t appear insensitive to you. Take the time to get to know your colleagues which will help you to understand what they find acceptable and humorous but more importantly what they don’t.

It is always safer to stick to positive humour as this has been shown to have more positive outcomes in enhancing work outcomes and making others feel positive while increasing openness and creativity than detrimental humour styles such as self-deprecation or aggression.

Humour in the workplace risks and rewards

In summary, while humour can be a powerful tool for building relationships and improving job satisfaction, it is not without its risks. Whether an attempt at humour is successful or not will always depend on who’s telling it, where it’s being told, when it’s being told and who the audience is; context is everything.

It can be difficult to navigate what is acceptable but by being aware of other’s boundaries when delivering humour, mindful of gender biases in our response to humour and focusing on positive humour, we have the power to create a more enjoyable and productive work environment for everyone to enjoy.

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