2020 was no laughing matter. We are all hoping this year will be a lot more straightforward. Several of the leaders I work with are currently consolidating their learnings and innovations from last year, while building resilience for what 2021 will bring. This is a serious mission, but a connected, motivated, and high-performing team can be created by injecting humour into your workplace. While some believe that humour is at odds with serious business, it can actually make you more impactful.
The benefits of humourWhen people feel good, they work at their best. This may be something that many of us intuitively know to be true, but it is borne out by research. Work done within the service sector by psychologist Lyle Spencer in the early 2000s demonstrated that for every one percent improvement in workplace culture, there is a two percent increase in revenue.
In his book, Primal Leadership, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman explains that pleasant emotions brought on by humour are like oil on the cogs of our brain, stimulating mental efficiency. They make people better at understanding information and making complex judgements, as well as more flexible in their thinking. Feeling good makes for good business.
Research on humour reveals that a well-timed joke or playful laughter sparks creativity, opens lines of communication and enhances a sense of connection and trust. Our brains are designed to “catch” emotions off each other. Scientists call our limbic brain (our emotional centre) an “open loop system” – one that is impacted and regulated by external sources. This is why being around people who are sad or miserable can bring our own mood down too. Not all emotions are equally contagious however. Thankfully, cheerfulness and warmth spread more easily than irritability and anxiety. Smiles and laughter are the most contagious emotional signals. You will know this from personal experience - we automatically smile or laugh too when we hear someone else laugh. This creates a chain reaction that sweeps through the group.
Embracing your sense of humour can benefit you personally in terms of your health and career. When we laugh, our brains release a cocktail of healthy hormones that suppress cortisol, which can be harmful to the body, and increase oxytocin and dopamine – the “feel-good” chemicals. In some cases, laughter can actually be a matter of life or death: one large-scale Norwegian study found that people with a sense of humour have a 30% better chance of survival if severe disease strikes. This statistic seems particularly relevant right now, given that there is a pandemic raging around the world.
Want to stand out from the crowd? Humour serves to differentiate you from co-workers and makes you more memorable. Laughter increases the presence of the hormone dopamine in your body, and dopamine is connected to memory and information retention. So if someone is laughing when you’re talking to them, they are actually more likely to remember what you say. As a facilitator and trainer, I have always worked on this basis – it’s something I believed intuitively, but it is interesting to have it confirmed by neuroscience.
Being able to make your co-workers laugh could give you a real edge in your career. Research has shown that people who use humour at work are 27% more respected and seen as more competent and confident. How to inject humour into the workplaceThe first step to leveraging the benefits of humour is to work out what style comes most naturally to you. Humour is not the same as comedy – you don’t have to learn the techniques of comedians to land a joke. Rolling with your natural style is more likely to be effective in getting a chuckle out of people.In their book, Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life, authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas identify four humour styles:• The Stand-Up – natural entertainers, bold, irreverent and not afraid to ruffle a few feathers to get a laugh.• The Magnet – positive, warm and uplifting. Avoid controversial or upsetting humour. Radiate charisma. Can read a room and are aware of how their humour is landing. • The Sniper – edgy, sarcastic, nuanced. Unafraid to cross lines in pursuit of a laugh.• The Sweetheart – earnest and honest. Use humour to lighten the mood. Avoid humour that might risk hurting feelings.
Magnet and Sweetheart work best if you have higher status in the group, because as a leader you have responsibility to maintain and uplift the mana of those within your group.
Sniper and Stand-Up can work well if you are of a lower status. By taking a risk with your humour you demonstrate social courage and gently poking fun at those of higher status closes the gap between you.
Sometimes people are afraid to share things they find funny or add a little quip in a meeting for fear of it falling flat. Humour doesn’t have to be “good,” it just has to be not inappropriate.
In business, it seems the expectations are not high. In a 1987 study of 290 workers, leaders with any sense of humour were seen as 27% more motivating and admired than those who were consistently serious. Their employees were 15% more engaged, and their teams more than twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge.
If your joke does fall flat (or worse, offends people) rather than trying to save face or looking for an out by saying, “Oh I was just joking,” or “He obviously doesn’t have a sense of humour,” you will have more chance of retaining your credibility and people’s trust by owning your failure and, if necessary, apologising for the offence caused. Then, of course, you need to learn from your mistake.
Embracing your funny side can be good for your individual and team performance. I have been trying to think of a humorous way to end this article, but the deadline is due…
Maybe I’m just not that funny.
This article originally featured in Sarah's "Connections" column in The Otago Daily Times on 16 February 2021