No Joke: Humor Seriously Boosts Productivity

Have you ever thought about bringing more humor into your workplace? That may seem like a funny question, but it’s no laughing matter. Humor has been proven to bring a whole host of benefits (and some laughs) to the workplace. However, cracking a joke with coworkers also carries some level of risk. That’s why it’s important to understand the function of good humor and learn how to use it successfully at work. I’ve compiled some of the most important things to know before you start playing class clown in the office. I hope these tips will help us all make our workplaces more fun… and more productive.

How Humor Boosts Productivity

First and foremost, learn why humor matters. You shouldn’t have to take my word for it. This Forbes article lists a whole slew of positive effects from workplace laughter. Well-placed humor at work can increase productivity, build rapport among coworkers, and facilitate creativity. This study did find that the effect on creativity depends on the kind of humor you use, though. You can’t just be funny; it has to land well. If you succeed, you have the opportunity to build trust, boost morale, and ease tension in challenging situations with coworkers. Those are all worthwhile reasons to share that meme you just giggled at with a team member.

It’s also important to note, as executive advisor Dr. Rob Fazio writes here, that humor reduces burnout. This study demonstrated that humor can relieve both physical distress and perceptions of stressful events. Plus, as this research found, injecting humor into your workplace can boost persistence. That’s because a good laugh energizes you and helps you push through a challenge. This article from Mayo Clinic describes the full range of health benefits you get from bringing some levity into your life.

Given the social nature of humor, it’s not surprising that being funny isn’t just good for you alone. It makes a difference for your whole team. This study found that making people laugh in a meeting can have big effects. In the short term, groups that laugh together communicate with more positivity. In the long term, these groups show higher efficiency as a team. This article also emphasizes that humor can also help you connect with your audience during a presentation.

So you may be ready to start sharing your favorite comic strip in presentations, group chats, and emails. But is it appropriate?

In Good Humor or In Poor Taste?

Not all jokes land well, especially in a professional setting. This article from the Forbes Coaches Council acknowledges that fact. That’s why it advises professionals not to rely on sarcasm at work, even if that’s your usual brand of humor. That said, there’s no argument that including some jokes or memes in your presentation will increase the likelihood of others learning. It’s really important to distinguish between a laugh that engages and a laugh that offends.

Executive coach and professor of leadership Dr. Brian Harman has a list of suggestions for how to be funny to good effect here. He encourages you to be authentic in how you express yourself. At the same time, you can build on coworkers’ sense of humor by using the “yes and” approach to further a joke someone else has made. Not to mention, laughing at something yourself is a great way to lighten the mood. Our mirror neurons basically guarantee that laughs will be contagious.

That said, Dr. Harman cautions professionals from misusing jokes and lightheartedness. If you interrupt someone else to try and make others laugh, that’s unlikely to be well received. Jokes that target others also aren’t a good idea in the workplace, or for that matter, anywhere at all. As this study found, there’s some complex interplay between power dynamics and laughter. For instance, men tend to use humor in the workplace much more frequently than women do. Understanding your place in a professional hierarchy and being mindful of others’ sensitivities will help you in this situation. After all, you want to be funny, not demeaning. 

Funny Leaders Get Serious Results

On that note, people in leadership roles should really invest in employing humor more at work. Given the positive effects of humor on employees’ productivity and team cohesion, it’s a no brainer to use this tool. In fact, this meta-analysis of studies found that leaders who use humor are better perceived by others at work. That means being funny will get you good results, and your employees know it.

That said, some leaders may be hesitant to introduce more authentic humor into their work lives. Research has documented a tricky relationship between humor and status. Landing a great joke can help you advance, sure. However, making an awkward or uncomfortable joke can actually hurt you in the long run. This HBR article also cautions leaders not to get to testy with their jokes. Studies have found that leaders who employ risky jokes often promote a culture of testing boundaries that may not be healthy at work. Sure, you want creativity. That doesn’t mean you want employees slacking off, falsifying information, or getting lax with confidentiality.

So what can a good leader do? This “user guide” has some great tips for leaders. For instance, inside jokes are a great way to build team unity. Of course, on the other hand, making an inside joke around someone who doesn’t get it will alienate that person. That’s why inside jokes should be shared selectively, only when you know everyone is on the “in.” Self-deprecating humor can also be tricky for leaders. Don’t use it to undermine your competence. You want to be respected. However, poking a little fun at yourself can be a good way to appear more approachable. Finally, use humor to defuse tension around challenging news. If a product launch didn’t go as planned, making a joke can help your team feel more comfortable about it. Showing that you can laugh about a problem makes it easier for everyone to handle.

Humor as Healing in Pandemic Times

Of course, great leadership has never been so sorely needed as in these unprecedented pandemic times. As this article notes, COVID-19 has increased levels of isolation and depression for many. As a result, we’re laughing less than we used to. You may not be surprised by this study’s findings: laughter occur 30 times as often in groups as when we’re alone. And we’re more in need of it than ever before. According to this article, laughing is good for our immune system and stress relief. I think you’ll all agree with me that a little positivity can go a long way these days. The question is, how do we leverage humor at work to address these challenges?

This HBR article from last year has some great insights into how you keep the laughs coming in a virtual work setting. Perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that laughing together is a priority. For remote workers, meetings may make up much of our social interactions on a regular basis. That’s why making time for a joke or meme to start out each meeting can be a great new strategy. At the very least, smile when you can on video calls. Your smile lets your coworkers know that you’re open to a good laugh. Hopefully, your group will find an opportunity to laugh together. It’s only going to help you live and work better, especially in these times.