I had a conversation recently with someone who confided that they were sick of work. “Everything feels too routine. I get pushed around and everyone expects me to be funny all the time,” they said. Seeing they were a bit stressed, I recommended they switch off for the evening and suggested a visit to the circus. The person started sobbing. “But that’s where I work,” they bawled. “As one of the clowns.”
OK, let me take this a bit more seriously and tell you about a real conversation I had recently with a client who likes to use humor in the workplace. They confided in me that they were concerned that their jokey manner was creating a reputation as someone lacking in seriousness, professionalism and maturity, and they asked me if they should tone things down. It’s pretty cheerless that in 2019, after all the surveys about lack of engagement, wellbeing and authenticity in the workplace, people are still struggling to be their natural selves. I gave the following response: Humor in the workplace can be both career-enhancing and a powerful social intelligence tool, but it needs to be executed with skill and purpose.
An oft-cited Robert Half survey found that “91 percent of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement, while 84 percent feel that people with a good sense of humour do a better job.” Indeed, in The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses Are Laughing All The Way To The Bank, Michael Kerr reflects that in this day and age, people who take themselves too seriously in the workplace are often taken less seriously by others. It reminds me of the joke about the humorless office worker who went for a promotion. He didn’t get it.
Studies and research show that humor in the workplace can be highly beneficial and drive up productivity, promote wellbeing, break down barriers and create a more human and authentic environment. That said, humor has boundaries that must be carefully observed and managed. Here are three essential habits to take into account when being funny in the workplace.
1. Familiarize yourself with the basic mechanics of humor.
There are many varieties of humor, e.g. self-deprecating, put-down, bonding, observational, verbal wit, slapstick, surreal, dark, bodily, etc. Some are more appropriate in a work environment than others. Pulling a chair out from under a colleague and passing gas in the elevator is clearly not appropriate and is sure to have you laughing all the way to the labor exchange. Being overtly offensive in the workplace is also strictly off-limits, and that includes put-down humor about peoples physical appearance. That line of comedy may seem like friendly banter, but can be highly derisive and, as Albert Rapp argues in The Origins of Wit and Humor, is a veiled form of superiority. It’s important to understand what each of these different forms yield. For example, self-deprecating humor can make you seem humble, approachable and down-to-earth, but when overused can give the impression of insecurity and lack of confidence. Insider jokes can be socially bonding but can also be cliquey and alienating to outsiders.
2. Use humor intentionally and with a purpose.
In More Funny, More Money, author Marty Wilson tells the story of a Southwest Airlines announcement: “Southwest Airlines would like to congratulate a first-time flyer on board today who is celebrating his 89th birthday. Ladies and Gentlemen, how about a big round of applause for our pilot.” This announcement is purposeful; it makes people smile, humanizes what can be a depersonalizing experience and puts passengers at ease. But it’s also a crucial signal that announcements on this flight will be interesting, fun and worth listening to rather than reading in-flight magazines. The announcement contains both intellect and empathy. Humor in this context communicates emotional, social and cultural intelligence.
3. Be on top of your game.
The plain reality is, using humor and jokes in the workplace carries a risk of some people questioning your sincerity and professionalism. In this case, it is very important to be on top of your game and focused on the details that will off-set these prejudices. In the classic courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, the lead counsel, Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, prompts Navel Investigator, Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway, to question his professionalism. She seeks to get him removed from the assignment for his “fast-food, slick-ass, Persian bazaar manner.” Over time, though, she comes to regard him as an “exceptional lawyer” because of his raw abilities in the courtroom. It may be helpful to disclose to others that your use of humor is intentional and purposeful so that they understand that you are employing humor in a tactical manner.
Using humor in the workplace should not be stigmatized in this day and age. Indeed, this BBC business report examines how progressive companies such as Google, Twitter, Red Bull and Siemens are embracing more playful working cultures. And as a recent academic paper posits, people who use humor in an appropriate and intentional way are far from frivolous or flippant; they are behavioral change agents who seek to build a more natural, engaging, authentic and playful work environment and culture. They are among the most emotional and socially intelligent people in the workplace and tend to be genuinely happy, well-adjusted and successful in their work. And that’s not to be scoffed at.