Funny Business: How Workplace Humor Can Contribute to Success

Do you enjoy a good joke during the work day?

The problem is that sticky issue of what makes a joke “good” and work-appropriate. Some people love stand-up comedy-type routines – tough to pull off in a work setting (and often cringe-inducing). Others are more into practical jokes and April Fool’s stunts. Again, not funny to all. And, of course, political humor is particularly fraught in today’s contentious times.

But what can work in workplace humor is the well-timed one-liner in a meeting that diffuses tension or creates camaraderie. As a speaker, I find it important to incorporate humor whenever I can…and not so much going for those big “laugh lines,” but finding commonalities that make the audience laugh because they recognize themselves.

For example, in my recent TEDx Talk, I shared this quote: “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today.” I asked my audience if they thought it had been said today, or maybe way back in the ‘50s or even the ‘30s. And I always get a laugh when I reveal that it’s from the 8th century BC, adding that we literally have been shaming young people for all of human history. It’s not big or broad or slapstick, but it’s a line that almost everyone can relate to.

They say laughter is the best medicine, but there’s a prescription for getting it right. Here are some tips for keeping your laugh lines in line at work.

Why Workplace Humor Ups Your Cred

“According to [Lynn] Taylor, [author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant,] humour demonstrates ‘maturity and the ability to see the forest through the trees. Well-placed humour that is clever and relating to a business situation always enhances an employee’s career.’ … [H]umour ‘establishes a fertile environment for innovation because people are more inspired when they are relaxed. You can also build trust with the effective use of humour because it often reveals the authentic person lurking under the professional mask.’” — Read more at Real Business.

Go on and Tell It: Even Bad Jokes (But Not Offensive Ones!) Make You Appear More Confident

“First, don’t be afraid of a flop. Bad jokes — as long as they are appropriate — won’t harm your social standing or affect how competent people think you are. They may even increase how confident you seem. Second, it is almost always advisable to tell an appropriate joke. A well-executed appropriate joke makes you seem more confident, more competent, and higher status. A flop only makes you seem as inept as a serious response.” — Read more at Harvard Business Review.

Telling a Joke Can Make People See You Differently

“Effective humor can trigger abrupt changes in people’s image. A soft-spoken introvert who ‘out of nowhere, in a deadpan manner, delivers a line that is super-funny,’ can rocket to greater influence among co-workers, says Bob Kulhan, founder of Business Improv.” — Read more at The Wall Street Journal.

Humor Holds Clues to Employees’ Moods

“[Humor] can also be a useful way to take the pulse of an organization. … [I]t should be treated by managers as a valuable opportunity to see inside the mind of employees. It will give you an insight into the frustrations faced by your team.” — Read more at Forbes.

Know What’s Absolutely NOT Funny

“We hope it goes without saying, but it bears repeating: Topics like race, gender, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, religion and disabilities are off-limits. Also skip negative humor, which can be defined as any joke that is at the expense of another person, organization or group of people. And, no matter how tempting it may be, don’t forward emails containing jokes, ‘funny’ images or videos. You never know what an employee may consider offensive, and taking a chance something will provoke laughter just isn’t worth the risk.” — Read more at Robert Half.

Tell us about a time that humor helped you out — or backfired — at work. Please share in the comments below!

Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

5 Responses to “Funny Business: How Workplace Humor Can Contribute to Success”

  1. Joe Kosinski

    Great topic! A couple of qualifiers: In a global organization, what may be funny to us here in the US, may not be funny in France, Pakistan, Russia, wherever. I believe that humor works best at work if it’s done in person. Again, email humor may not work without facial or body-language context.

    Reply
  2. Celeste Stewart

    Such a great topic, thanks Lindsey!

    Sometimes I talk about how I “got my foot in it” when I’m delivering a talk and that usually results in some laughter (me and the audience).

    My advice to young leaders is to always treat humour with caution. If there is ANY chance it may be misinterpreted, just steer clear of it! It’s so much harder to build relationships (though not impossible) after damage control so rather err on the side of caution.

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