Have you ever heard the maxim never explain a joke? It’s easy to see why this sentiment arose: The joy of humor lies in the immediate, shared recognition that some stuffy norm has been violated or some oft-unspoken truth has been exposed. This recognition is what we mean when we say somebody gets it – a good joke doesn’t have to be deconstructed and analyzed because its meaning is already clear.
But there’s a difference between awkwardly explaining a joke to a group of friends and trying to understand and explain humor itself. Which kinds of humor work and why? What are the social and psychological effects of humor? Why is humor such a powerful human universal? These questions aren’t just interesting for their own sake – their answers can tell us a whole lot 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, C-suite executives, and anyone else who’s 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 it isn’t used thoughtfully. This is 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 has to be appropriate, which means taking the context, audience, and nature of the joke into account. Second, companies have to be aware of the behavioral implications and cultural effects of humor, which are pronounced and sometimes surprising. And third, it should generate organizational solidarity – humor that attacks and degrades employees can lead to alienation and hostility.
When humor goes wrong
According to a 2014 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 affect, 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 either laugh or they don’t.
The use of humor doesn’t just have inherent interpersonal risks – it’s also heavily dependent on context. This means joke-tellers (especially if they’re in positions of authority at a company) have to consider a wide range of factors, such as the audience they’re speaking to. As a 2014 study in 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.” Humor can also be interpreted in discriminatory ways: A 2019 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that women who use humor in the workplace were less likely to see their status improve than men.
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. Of particular concern for NINJIO is the fact that one of the norms employees may feel licensed to violate, according to a researcher who worked on the study, is the taboo against sharing private information (which is anathema to any company concerned about cybersecurity).
While there are many ways humor can go wrong, adherence to a few basic principles can prevent this from happening. From respect for cultural norms and other sensitivities to an understanding of how humor can affect the behavior of your employees, a little awareness will go a long way. And it will help you enjoy the many benefits of humor without the downsides.
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 weird ringtone in the middle of a meeting or a hilarious story about a colleague’s weekend. Moments like these transcend the daily monotony of work, relieve tension, and strengthen connections between people. Humor is often a reprieve, and its effect on the well-being of employees has been demonstrated again and again.
Because humor is such a significant part of our interpersonal lives, it can have a profound effect on how we’re perceived by others. For example, a meta-analysis of research on workplace humor published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology found that the use of humor among supervisors “positively relates to subordinate perceptions of supervisor performance.” Humor was also associated with “enhanced subordinate work performance, satisfaction … satisfaction with supervisor, and workgroup cohesion, as well as reduced work withdrawal.”
The study found that the positive effects of humor among employees may be even clearer, including “enhanced work performance, satisfaction, workgroup cohesion, health, and coping effectiveness, as well as decreased burnout, stress, and work withdrawal.” It’s no surprise that, according to Gallup, more than 90 percent of “engaged” employees report that they “smiled and laughed a lot” throughout the week, a proportion that falls precipitously among “actively disengaged” employees.
There’s no shortage of evidence that humor can make employees happier and more productive, which is all the more reason why managers should be mindful about how they use it – they don’t want a powerful asset to become a liability. No matter what industry you’re in, if you always use humor with the above guidelines in mind, the chances that you’ll have to explain a joke – or, even worse, apologize for it – will be much slimmer.