The right and wrong ways to approach workplace humor

Follow this guidance to engage employees with lighthearted content—instead of enraging them with inappropriate jokes.

A bedrock rule of humor is, “Never explain a joke.”

As E.B. White wrote: “Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.”

The joy of humor lies in the immediate, shared recognition that some stuffy norm has been violated or some unspoken truth has been exposed. It’s pure magic when done right, but threading the needle of “appropriate humor” is easier said than done in today’s touchy times—especially in the workplace.

Which kinds of humor still work—and why? What are the social and psychological effects of humor at work? The answers tell us much about when, where and how to use humor.

Primary considerations for using humor in the workplace

Understanding the use and misuse of humor is particularly important for managers, executives and anyone else responsible for establishing and maintaining a healthy workplace culture. Although humor can bring employees together and create a more relaxed work environment, it can also be divisive and counterproductive when used haphazardly.

That’s the theme of a recent report by the security awareness training company Ninjio, which examines the benefits and risks of humor in the workplace.

According to Ninjio, there are three primary considerations that should inform the use of humor in a professional environment. First, humor must be appropriate, which means taking the context, audience and nature of the joke into account.

Second, companies must be keenly aware of the behavioral and cultural implications of humor, which can be subtle yet profoundly damaging to morale if handled poorly.

Third, humor should generate organizational solidarity. Mean-spirited wisecracks that attack and degrade employees can lead to alienation, hostility and disengagement; edifying humor can bring staffers together.

When humor goes wrong

According to a study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, “Failed humor is no laughing matter.” The researchers report that it “may not only lead to forgoing the potential benefits of positive affect such as helpful, prosocial behavior, enhanced decision making and creativity, but also may result in negative effects, decreased self-esteem and the unwillingness to persist in affect regulation efforts.”

The researchers also note that humor is a high-stakes, high-pressure form of communication, as it provides an immediate and unambiguous feedback mechanism: People laugh, or they don’t.

Another study found that a little strategic levity can “enhance workplace status” by conveying confidence, competence and charisma. The downside, however, is that botched attempts at humor can paint you as more of an incompetent “class clown” who shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Of course, it’s all about catering to—and being respectful of—your audience. As the International Journal of Management and Information Systems explains: “It is important to note that what one demographic group might consider as humor might be considered insulting by another demographic group.”

A humor-filled environment can even make employees more likely to break the rules: A 2017 study in the Academy of Management Journal found that humor can “signal to followers the acceptability of norm violation at work,” which can lead to aberrant behavior like absenteeism and insubordination. One researcher expressed a concern that excessive or unchecked humor could lead to “increasingly deviant behaviors,” such as drinking on the job or fudging financial figures.

The positive effects of humor

Picture the last time you were having a rough day at work and something funny happened. Maybe it was a funny ringtone in the middle of a meeting or a hilarious story about a colleague’s weekend.

Moments like these transcend the monotony of work, relieve tension and strengthen connections between people. Humor is a sweet reprieve, and its effect on the well-being of employees has been demonstrated repeatedly over time.

According to Gallup, more than 90% of “engaged” employees report that they “smiled and laughed a lot” throughout the week—a proportion that falls precipitously among “actively disengaged” employees.

Humor can make employees happier and more productive, but it takes a thoughtful, strategic and respectful approach. Otherwise, what could be a powerful asset can quickly become a serious liability.

Rebekah Iliff is a writer based in Nashville. A version of this post first appeared on Business 2 Community.

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