Humor me

The benefits of lightening up the workplace

Fred Mael

Humor has many positive benefits for life and for your business or organization. If you do it right and in a way that is consistentwith who you are, it can make you a stronger manager and make your company a better, more productive place to work. If you do it wrong, you can make a bad situation worse and drive your employees away, physically or emotionally.

Humor is good

Injecting humor into one’s daily behavior generally has positive consequences. Laughter has been claimed to energize the immune system, increase pain tolerance, release positive endorphins, and reduce stress-related hormones. Studies have found that it can be therapeutic for such life difficulties as depression and insomnia. The late Norman Cousins, longtime editor of the Saturday Review, described how humor saved his life. Cousins combated and overcame a debilitating arthritic condition that could not be helped by drugs mainly through a regimen of positive emotions, highlighted by large doses of laughter and comedy. He described his journey in his 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness and subsequent writings. Although skeptics remain, many doctors subscribe to this aspect of the mind -body connection.

Group cohesion. Group cohesion is enhanced by shared humor among team or company members. Humor (such as good-natured initiation rites) also shapes conformity to group norms and helps socialize new employees into the organization’s expectations.
Leadership. Leaders can use humor, especially self-deprecating humor, to reduce social distance between themselves and employees. Leaders who can convincingly use humor to demonstrate warmth and acceptance of their own and others’ frailties and failures can enhance their credibility with employees, They also increase the likelihood that employees will identify with them and in turn, with the organization.
Communication. Better communication between all levels of the organization can be achieved with humor as an ingredient of that communication. It lightens the mood and signals the intent to find mutually satisfying solutions.
Stress reduction. Stress can be reduced by humor even in life-threatening situations and certainly in mundane situations that are often mistakenly portrayed as critical by other managers or coworkers. It also promotes resilience. Humor is a great alternative to doomsday predictions, finger pointing, scapegoating, and giving up in tough situations. It raises team members’ capacity to persevere even against difficult odds.
Creativity. Humor has been shown to improves creativity because it relaxes people by reducing stress and enhances the acceptability of risk-taking.
Organizational culture. Perhaps as a result of all the other benefits, humor can help shape a more positive organizational culture (witness Southwest Airlines).

Not all humor is equal

Unfortunately, not all humor or attempts at humor achieve these positive benefits. Humor that is self-deprecating, inside jokes, or humor that puts the whole group on the same side (compared to some external target) can be beneficial. Even good-natured teasing can be positive provided the target “gets” the joke, thinks it is humorous, and/or has enough self-esteem to realize that there is affection and camaraderie demonstrated by the tweaking. Some workplaces enjoy sharp, bantering humor and as long as everyone is on board, that can work.

Humor is not beneficial when it is mean-spirited, aims to victimize or belittle, or is only funny to the one making the joke. Examples include:

Humor that is humiliating to the target and that reiterates the large power differential between the “joker” and the target of ridicule. (This type of humor also makes the onlookers who can’t or won’t intervene feel debased and angry at the speaker, as is often the case in a bullying situation.)

Sarcastic humor that can be a passive-aggressive excuse for not confronting someone honestly about improvements they need to make

Scaring powerless employees (“You’re fired!!! Oh, just kidding heh heh heh…”) in a way that amuses only the one who is doing the scaring.

If someone claims they can’t control their hostile humor, it’s no more excuse than a claimed inability to control a volcanic temper or a tendency to touch people inappropriately. Telling the victim that they need to “loosen up” and “get a life” after they have been humiliated (assuming they are not patently hypersensitive) is to add insult to injury.

On the other hand, Romero and Cruthirds write that mildly aggressive humor “can communicate a forceful reprimanding message but with a humorous and positive tone… It also allows one to express disagreement and conflict without negative affect since the message is delivered in a playful manner. ” For those unused to using humor, it can take some practice to hit the right note.

An ingredient, not a substitute

One final note: A good sense of humor will not compensate for a poor management style. It can soften the edges, it can make one more endearing, but if a leader is a bully, a tyrant, cold and aloof, or disinterested in employees’ opinions or welfare, the humor will come across as authentic as a cheap toupee.

If you feel the need to bridge the gap between yourself and your employees, or to warm up your company’s culture, study leaders whose humor is genuine and appreciated by their employees. Think about emulating not only their humor but also the leadership style that makes it work.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. ( This article appeared in the June 2013 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.