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Workplace Humor Has Some Unexpected Benefits

How workplace humor can be used to your advantage.

Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.

—Grenville Kleiser

Humor is one of the highest forms of human communication. It can serve to increase intimacy, show compassion and understanding, break tension, make the unspeakable speakable, and in general bring people together in laughter in a way nothing else can.

A good joke can also increase one's capital. Humor can be used to get ahead in the workplace. However, when it goes wrong, it is damaging on many levels. As such, it is an important topic of study for understanding leadership and communication in business.

As someone who uses a lot of humor, I'm really interested in what makes for an effective joke in various settings, and what undermines my efforts, so I found this research on how humor relates to status, and competence really fascinating.

In their research paper Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status, Bitterly, Schweitzer, and Brooks (2017) create eight experiments that examine the positive and negative impact of humor in business environments.

Noting that status is important in every culture known to humankind, they go on to review the literature on the impact of status. They go on to report that higher-status people have increased resources, including financial and social, and better mental and physical health.

They say that in order to secure higher status, people strive to appear competent. Because competence is often vague objectively, people use stand-ins for competence, behaviors which serve as signals that someone is competent in the absence of proof.

They cite the example of someone who, in a new encounter, acts bolder and more confident than they are, which on average increases perceived status, as can appearing competent by contributing constructively to conversations and—you guessed it—using humor well. While humor has been linked to influence in studies of leadership, no research has been done to lay out the particulars of how this happens.

Their experimental setup is complicated to explain but involves different simulated work scenarios where pre-selected jokes are used to test various hypotheses about humor.

For example, in a simulated job interview setting, the "interviewee" would provide one of the following responses to the prospective employer's question:

Manager’s Question: What is a creative use for an old tire?

Appropriate joke response: Someone doing crossfit could use it for 30 minutes, then tell you about it forever.

Inappropriate joke response: Melt it down, make 365 condoms, and call it a GOODYEAR!

Serious response: Make a tire swing out of it.

By setting up experiments like this and measuring the responses of the person on the receiving end of the comments, the researchers were able to see how much of an impact successful and unsuccessful attempts at humor have on social capital. They sought to answer the following questions:

Hypothesis 1: The use of humor increases perceptions of confidence.

Hypothesis 2: The successful use of humor increases perceptions of competence.

Hypothesis 3: The successful use of humor increases status.

Hypothesis 4a: Perceptions of confidence mediate the relationship between the use of humor and status.

Hypothesis 4b: Perceptions of competence mediate the relationship between the use of humor and status.

Hypothesis 5: Appropriateness of the humor attempt will moderate the relationship between humor and competence.

Hypothesis 6: Laughter will moderate the relationship between humor and competence.

Here's what they found: First of all when someone tells a joke, and it works (it's funny, it's appropriate), the joke teller is viewed as having greater confidence, competence, and status. Furthermore, these folks are more likely to be given leadership positions. It's really important that jokes be funny! The overall positive effect of humor in the workplace was strong if—hold onto your hats—people laughed at the joke. After all, laughter makes us feel good and is good for overall health (Strean, 2009).

Additionally, the effect of successful humor on status was so strong that even recalling a time when a co-worker told a funny joke or did something funny increased the perceived status of that co-worker.

However, humor is risky. When jokes work, it's great for our social capital — however, when they flop, it's bad. The researchers found that telling an inappropriate joke leads to lower perceived competence and a decrease in status. Choose wisely! Nevertheless, making an inappropriate joke still leads to higher perceived confidence, even with lower status. And if the inappropriate joke makes people laugh, the damage done is reduced.

The authors conclude:

Humor is pervasive, and making a joke presents an opportunity for individuals to increase their status. If individuals tell appropriate jokes that make others laugh, they are likely to signal both confidence and competence and increase their status. If individuals tell inappropriate jokes that do not make others laugh, they are likely to appear confident, but less competent and lower in status. Taken together, many individuals may be missing opportunities to project confidence, demonstrate their competence, and increase their status. On the other hand,some individuals may be keenly aware about the risks of making inappropriate jokes—especially at work—and they may be wise to keep their jokes to themselves.

For me, this research is an opportunity to pause and reflect on how we use humor, and to go over some of the times a joke worked great, and when it didn't go over well.

Humor says so much about a person—a sense of humor is important in all relationships. For some couples, having a misfit around each other's sense of humor is a dealbreaker. When people share a similar sense of humor, we immediately feel like we "get" each other—humor is a shortcut to intimacy.

Humor can also diffuse tension, and so humor is an important tool for conflict resolution—but a misplaced joke can do terrible, unintentional damage. Since a lot of humor comes up spontaneously, it's important when the stakes are high—as in a work situation or during interpersonal conflicts—to tread carefully.

So, when you are preparing for a job interview, in addition to anticipating questions and good answers, cook up some funny, appropriate jokes to use sparingly, depending on the interview situation. Make sure to test any jokes before you use them, especially if there is a lot on the line.

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Strean WB. (2009). Laughter prescription. Canadian Family Physician. Oct; 55(10): 965-967.

Bitterly TB, Brooks AW, Schweitzer, ME. (2017). Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 112, No. 3, 431-455.

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