Henry Ford, one of the earliest protagonists of industrial working practices, famously claimed, ‘When we are at work, we ought to be at work. When we are at play, we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two.’1 Indeed, he is documented as having fired a worker on his factory floor for smiling; the man had already committed the offence of ‘laughing with the other fellow.

Things may not be quite that bad today but humour, fun and work are still generally thought of as mutually exclusive – and never more so, perhaps, than in these rather sombre days of austerity in the workplace. Yet creating and sharing humour is a basic human characteristic and has a raft of benefits for workplace productivity and job satisfaction. The humourless organisation is probably not a healthy one. This article will argue that we should all be embracing the funny and the absurd, especially because of, and not in spite of, today’s climate.

What is so funny?

We all enjoy a good laugh, but what makes something funny? Although this largely depends on an individual’s sense of humour and the context, most humorous incidents tend to fall within certain categories.

Incongruity – this is where we find something amusing because of its unexpected nature, its ambiguity, lack of logic or its inappropriateness. As receiver of the humour, we are led down a certain path, only to be abruptly switched to another path by the punchline.2 However, the point is that the shift actually turns out to make sense; what appeared incongruous at first turns out to be reconciled once we understand the punchline.

Superiority – this is when we find something funny because of someone else’s mistake or failings. Hearing of something rather bizarre or embarrassing that someone else has done allows us to feel superior and consequently we can find it funny (though we might not laugh if we have been the one to make the mistake).

Relief – the premise here is that a build-up of stress and tension can put us into a frame of mind where humour is a form of relief. This is why ‘dark’ or ‘black’ humour, such as that used by medics or emergency workers, can be effective.

In the workplace, a distinction is often made between ‘spontaneous’ and ‘standardised’ humour. Standardised humour is not context dependent and can be transferred from one environment to another. Examples include cartoons that might be pinned up on notice boards, jokes scripted into presentations, or humorous icebreaker activities. Spontaneous humour, however, is situation-specific – ‘you had to be there’ type humour that ceases to be funny away from its context.

Researchers have also proposed different styles that people can adopt in order to be amusing3 and these distinctions are particularly relevant to organisational humour.

1 Affiliative humour – where people use humour to enhance social interactions. Examples of affiliative humour include funny stories that relate to a particular in-group, ‘in-jokes’ etc. Affiliative humour is likened to a ‘social lubricant that facilitates interpersonal interaction and creates a positive environment’ and plays a strong role in building relationships in the workplace.4

2 Self-enhancing humour – this is often a coping mechanism for dealing with stress and is aimed at making the joker feel good, especially in stressful or difficult times.

3 Aggressive humour – this is often used to manipulate others by means of an implied threat of ridicule and to victimise or belittles someone else. The joker makes himself or herself feel better by putting another person down – they enhance their own superiority over that person.

4 Self-defeating humour – people who use this style often do so to attempt to reduce their own status in order to appear more approachable and accessible to others. It can thus be an effective tool for managers.

Benefits of humour in the workplace

So much for why we find things funny. How does this appreciation of the absurd help us at work? Within the workplace, humour has been defined as ‘amusing communications that produce positive emotions and cognitions in the individual, group or organisation’. 4 Having fun, laughing, telling jokes, engaging in banter… all these activities are said to be very beneficial to both the organisation and the employee. For a start, laughter is thought to be a powerful stress reducer. There is strong evidence that humour reduces stress.5 Humour releases tension – it is very difficult to enjoy humour when you are stressed (this is why a sign of chronic stress is no longer finding humour or fun in life) – and thus can be an effective form of stress management.6 Indeed, the physical effects of humour appear similar to those of exercise. Laughter has also been shown to be accompanied by changes to IgA, which is an important immune-enhancer in our bodies. Laughter may also release endorphins, those ‘feel-good’ hormones in our bodies.

Humour can increase group cohesiveness in organisations. According to McGhee, humour has the following effect on group cohesiveness: ‘Shared laughter and the spirit of fun generates a bonding process in which people feel closer together – especially when laughing in the midst of adversity.’7

It is not only affiliative humour that can achieve this. For example, aggressive humour when directed at a competitive organisation can strengthen group bonds. Mildly aggressive humour is sometimes directed at new workers, in the form of practical jokes or ridicule, to initiate them to the group norms. When the new recruits have started to conform to the group norms of behaviour, the humour subsides.

Humour plays a role in enhancing communication, creating an open atmosphere by awakening positive emotions that enhance listening, understanding and acceptance of messages,8 leading to improved comprehension, persuasion and emotional connection.9

Humour can also be a catalyst for creativity as both are about taking risks, playing with ideas and putting concepts together in new and innovative ways.10 Engaging in humour at work has also been found to be a good antidote to workplace boredom.6 Joking and humour have also been found to reduce workplace conflict.11

For managers, humour can facilitate putting subordinates at ease and, as alluded to earlier, minimising status differences. Humour provides a shortcut to developing rapport, trust and openness with team members. It can be used to break the ice and draw people out so that managers can find out what real concerns are – breaking through the polite façade that is too often presented to senior management.

Empirical research studies suggest that there are many benefits to leaders making use of humour in their managerial roles. For example, Wayne Decker, Professor of Management at the Perdue School of Business at Salisbury University,12 found a positive relationship between subordinates’ ratings of their supervisors as having a good sense of humour and their job satisfaction. Indeed, it has been argued that the use of humour as a managerial tool is effective for four specific reasons: first, humour facilitates learning; second, it promotes creativity; third, it facilitates changing behaviour, and finally, humour can help people feel less threatened by change.13

In their study,14 Decker and Rotondo found that the use of positive humour by managers was directly associated with higher levels of perceived leader effectiveness. They concluded that ‘humour usage enhances the ability of someone in a leadership role’ for both male and female managers.

This does not mean that managers should start bombarding their subordinates with jokes (indeed, real humour in the workplace tends not to thrive on jokes but on witty comments and mental agility) in order to be perceived as ‘funny’. There are many ways that managers can bring levity, playfulness and fun to the workplace (see later examples); indeed there is a surfeit of practitioner-based articles packed with advice in this area.

The dark side of humour

Humour at work should be used wisely as there is a danger of it crossing a line into offensive or even harassing behaviour. Sarcastic put-downs, the use of hostility cloaked in humour, or jokes at the expense of co-workers can all have a negative impact on the workplace. Any jokes or humour that might offend or embarrass minority groups or individuals or that might reinforce prejudices and stereotypes should definitely not be used. Humour that has gone wrong can be cause for disciplinary action, so sexual comments of a jokey nature should absolutely be avoided, as should any reference to racial issues. ‘It was just a joke’ is never a good defence against a claim of harassment or discrimination.

A special mention should be made of physical humour, or horseplay. Examples in the literature include putting lit cigarettes in an unsuspecting employee’s pocket, bringing a live snake into work to frighten a snake-phobic co-worker and pulling chairs away as colleagues are about to sit down (Duncan and colleagues provide a helpful review 15). All of these actions could be classed as causing workplace disruption, property damage or posing a safety hazard, which would cross the line from humour into unacceptable workplace behaviour.

There are other situations when the use of humour would also be inappropriate:16

  • where humour is used without regard to the situation, timing or individuals present (see racist/sexist and other offensive humour above)
  • when it becomes ‘annoying and tiresome’4
  • if humour interferes with job performance
  • when there is an over-reliance on humour for stress relief – in these circumstances, excessive use of humour can hide signs of distress.

How to bring humour back into the office

There are numerous ways that fun and humour can be encouraged in an appropriate way into even the most staid of workplaces, as organisations like Google, Ben and Jerry’s and Innocent have demonstrated. Paul McGhee, in his article ‘More ideas for building fun into your work setting’,7 has some suggestions:

  • create a humour bulletin board – put the bulletin board in the lunchroom or other social area where everyone can post tasteful cartoons, jokes and funny photos
  • give fun awards – give employees funny gifts and awards to recognise their hard work in a humorous way. Give employees mugs with a funny phrase, or a gift that represents a challenge they have overcome.
  • have cartoon caption contests – this can be done using the bulletin board or by sending copies of a cartoon around before a meeting. Everyone who wants to do so submits a caption in advance. At the meeting, people vote on the funniest caption
  • create a tension-release area, such as Kodak’s ‘Employee Humour Room'17 – this room can contain a pool table, chalk board, mini-basketball hoops, a deck of cards and hula hoops for employees to ‘play’ with. This will encourage employees to take a break from their work to relieve some stress to avoid getting burnt out.
  • engage employees – have employees with responsibility for creating fun, as Ben and Jerry’s do with their ‘Joy Gang’.17

Resistance to workplace humour is not likely to be broken down overnight and, indeed, many organisations still try to manage humour for well-intentioned reasons (such as fear of racially abusive humour, disrespect and the potential for sexual harassment). However, with appropriate guidelines in place, the benefits of humour at work seem likely to outweigh the potential risks – whatever Henry Ford might have thought.

This article was first published in the summer 2014 issue of the journal Counselling at Work, published by BACP©2014.

Dr Sandi Mann is Senior Lecturer in Occupational Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire and Director of the MindTraining Clinic. She is author of several psychology self-help books and writes the regular ‘Workplace Matters’ column for Counselling at Work.


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