By Jai Thade, Head of Content
It’s been a really serious and sobering year-and-a-half for all of us collectively. The pandemic and its resultant economic turmoil, socio-political strife, and the constant doom-and-gloom of the media have (understandably) wiped the smiles off a lot of people’s faces.
This is a matter of concern because the research seems to indicate that laughter is actually serious business!
Laughter has been shown to boost engagement and productivity at work[i]. This isn’t surprising, as there is a wealth of literature that has demonstrated how laughter relieves stress, boosts well-being and offers benefits to both physical and mental health[ii].
And it’s not just that. Humour can assist us when it comes to better negotiation outcomes[iii], when it comes to problem-solving & creative thinking[iv] and much more. Humour also appears to be important when it comes to leaders – making them more motivating and admired, and helping their employees feel more engaged[v].
Okay, so humour at work is clearly no joke! But how can you leverage this understanding and bring humour into your workplace? Here are a few initial thoughts.
- Build upon naturally funny moments.
We all end up being funny sometimes, and we can use these natural moments of levity as comedic springboards. If you or someone you’re interacting with says something funny, you can double-down on this by making the initial premise more absurd. For instance, if I’ve been working overtime on a busy day, and my colleague playfully ribs me by saying “You haven’t been putting in enough hours!”, I can build upon that by saying “Yep, I’ve pretty much been lying in a hammock sipping Piña coladas all day.” This ping-ponging can be a great way to involve different people in adding to the joke.
- Use call-backs
This means referencing a moment that already got a laugh. For instance, if on a video call you notice a moment of laughter (e.g. one employee was distracted by a particularly noisy neighbour), you can reference that in a follow-up message you write them (e.g. “I hope your neighbour is doing a better job at fulfilling their neighbourly duties today!”).
- Create fresh jokes – using comedic similes and metaphors.
An easy way to do this is by drawing a connection or parallel between two unrelated areas, and this combination is what is funny. For instance, if you are a co-trainer or a co-facilitator for a training session and you notice how your co-facilitator led through a difficult part of a session skillfully without your help, you could say “I felt like I was a member of the royal family at a parade – I only had to smile, nod and wave!” When drawing these comparisons, often the more specific your comparison is, the more humourous it can be. For instance, if your colleague has a new phone with a unique design – saying “it looks like it came from the future” might elicit a chuckle, but saying it looks like it was “Fed-exed to you from the Year 3005” might elicit a bigger chuckle!
In the closest and strongest of work relationships, there may occasionally be a space for some light, playful teasing. When doing this, it is best to poke fun about topics that the other person is not insecure about, or that they regard as strengths. The safest approach is to crack jokes that build a person up. For instance, if you notice a colleague is great at putting together excel spreadsheets, you could label them as the “Spreadsheet Sensei” of your team.
Tied to this is another caveat: make sure you’re tailoring your humour to your specific audience. It’s better to reserve jokes and humour for stronger work relationships, especially if you’re not comfortable being humourous at work. As mentioned above, jokes that elevate others are often the safest. Use cues to determine your joke isn’t being taken the wrong way, and always err on the side of safety.
Also, remember that it’s okay for jokes and quips not to land. The whole point of bringing humour into the workplace is not so much about making people laugh but about infusing work with an attitude of fun and playfulness.
So what contexts and situations can you apply humour in?
- You can use humour to build relationships and create a friendlier environment (humour can be a powerful social lubricant!)
- You can use humour to defuse difficult situations and bust stress, both for yourself and others
- You can use humour to find the funny side of things that go wrong at work
Laughter and levity can also be built into the culture of an organisation to some extent. For example, Yahoo and IBM have zany names like Kajagoogoo for their meeting rooms. The streaming platform Hulu hosts taco-eating contests and Airzooka tournaments for its employees.
In conclusion, look at having a good laugh with your colleagues not as a detractor of high-quality work, but as a facilitator of it. Humour needs to be taken more seriously!
[i] (“Leading with Humor” – Beard, 2014)
[ii] (“The Laughter Prescription” – Louie, Brook & Frates, 2016)
[iii] (“Eliciting Compliance: Humor as a Technique of Social Control” – O’Quin & Aronoff, 1981)
[iv] (“Teaching and Learning with Humor: Experiment and Replication” – Ziv, 1988)
[v] (“How to Be Funny at Work” – Aaker & Bagdonas, 2021)
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