Cracking a Joke At Work Can Have a Surprising Payoff
Humor in the workplace is a double-edged sword.
Posted March 14, 2017
I like humor. I try to be funny, and sometimes succeed. Thankfully, my podcast has a great producer, and so the final edits make me look a lot funnier than I really am (often by splicing together individual words to create something that is much like a ransom note).
Is it good to try to be funny in work contexts? People certainly tell a lot of jokes at work. I remember growing up that my father (an accountant) and his friends (mostly other professionals and business people) would trade jokes that they had heard in the workplace. Does telling jokes help people to be more successful?
This question was explored in a paper in the March, 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Bradford Bitterly, Alison Brooks, and Maurice Schweitzer.
They demonstrate that successful humor does increase people’s status in organizations. Successful humor is both funny and appropriate for the work context.
In order to do their studies, they first did a survey to verify that humor is common in the workplace. It is.
Then, they pilot tested a number of jokes to ensure that they were funny. They also found some jokes that were appropriate for the workplace and others that were not.
In one study, they had adults (with an average age in the mid-20s) come to a lab to do a study in which they were told they were looking at the influence of testimonials on people’s beliefs about a company. The company was a pet waste removal service that would come to a person’s house and take away all of the pet poop.
The participant arrived at the lab along with two other people who looked like participants, but were actually confederates working with the experimenter. They drew lots to see who would go first, second, and third. The participant always drew a 3 and was told he or she would go last. They each wrote out a testimonial for the service. Then, they had to present them aloud to the group.
The first confederate gave a serious testimonial (starting with “They come every week and are very dependable. “). The second confederate either gave another serious testimonial or a humorous one (“Very professional. After cleaning up the poop, they weren’t even upset when they found out that I don’t have a pet! But seriously, this service is reliable and always leaves the yard spotless.”)
After the first two testimonials, participants were informed that there was no time for more testimonials. Instead, participants made a series of ratings about the testimonials as well as the two confederates. They rated factors related to status (such as how respected they were), competence, and confidence. The second confederate was rated as of higher status, more competent, and more confident when he used humor than when he did not. This finding suggests that humor can be a benefit.
A second set of studies explored whether the joke had to succeed to work. In this case, participants read vignettes about a job interview. The job candidate was asked a question and either answered it seriously or with a joke. The interviewer either laughed at the joke (a successful joke) or did not (an unsuccessful joke).
The interviewee’s status was higher and they were rated as more confident when they told a successful joke than when they were serious or told an unsuccessful joke. Interestingly, the interviewee was rated as more confident when they told a joke than when they didn’t, even when the joke was unsuccessful.
This finding suggests that successful jokes increase status, but unsuccessful ones don’t. So far, this would suggest that humor is a good thing. At worst, it doesn’t hurt and at least increases people’s sense of your confident.
However, a final set of studies looked at inappropriate jokes. For example, in one vignette, participants read about another job interview. The interviewer asked “Are you looking for a challenging position.” Some participants read that the job candidate gave a serious response (“Yes, I am a hard worker and like challenges.”) Some participants read that the job candidate made an inappropriate joke (“That’s what she said. Seriously, I am a hard worker and like challenges.”) Some participants read that the interviewer laughed at the joke while others read that the interviewer did not laugh.
In this case, the unsuccessful inappropriate joke decreased people’s judgments of the candidate’s status and competence quite a bit and even the successful inappropriate joke decreased people’s beliefs about the candidate’s competence. Again, people rated the joke teller as having higher confidence than the candidate who gave a serious response.
The experimenters repeated this study with different jokes and somewhat different measures and obtained the same pattern of findings.
These results suggest that when people hear someone tell a joke in a work setting, it increases their sense of the joke teller’s confidence. However, unsuccessful jokes and inappropriate jokes decrease people’s sense of the competence of the individual. When people view a colleague as confident, but not very competent, that ultimately hurts the colleague’s status.
This work demonstrates that humor at work is a double-edged sword. Successful jokes can make people appear more competent and can increase their status. But, unsuccessful jokes—and particularly inappropriate jokes—can actually hurt one’s position in the workplace. So, it is important to use humor carefully.
Bitterly, T.B., Brooks, A.W., & Schweitzer, M.E. (2017). Risky business: When humor increases and decreases status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(3), 431-455.