Workplace humor: It’s about more than having fun

Image: Group of people laughing in the workplace

Humor helps people cope with stress (true), it helps build relationships (true), good leaders use humor (true), a good sense of humor is associated with intelligence (true) and creativity (true).

I feel badly for people who study important topics that are nonetheless beyond the ability of most people to understand. Try striking up a cocktail party conversation with an average person about supersymmetric dark matter or recombinant uncertainty and you’re likely to find your conversational partner suddenly in need of a refill. 

Conversely, I study humor in the workplace. Literally anyone who has ever worked in an organization has an opinion on the topic. Many observations about humor have been confirmed in the research literature: Humor helps people cope with stress (true), it helps build relationships (true), good leaders use humor (true), a good sense of humor is associated with intelligence (true) and creativity (true). Conversations then typically go toward more subtle and complex topics: Humor can be used aggressively or to disparage others (true), people with power tend to use more humor (true) and often as a means of controlling others (also true). Below are some of the more interesting things I’ve found in my recent work with my colleagues.

Image: Christopher Robert
Christopher Robert

Humor and gender: Do women get a fair shake?

The short answer to this question is “no.” In a recent study with my colleague Tim Moake at Middle Tennessee State University, we explored whether the way people viewed someone who makes a humorous comment depends on the humorist’s status and their gender. To do this, we created short stories that ended with a humorous comment — either friendly or aggressive — made by a character in the story. We varied the characteristics of the humorist, so they were portrayed as either high or low status, and either male or female, and we asked participants to evaluate the humorist in the story. Our findings suggested that status didn’t really matter for men — high and low status male humorists were viewed equally, and fairly positively, when they used either friendly or aggressive humor. 

For women, the results were more complicated. High status women who used aggressive humor are viewed similarly to men, but low status women who used aggressive humor were viewed negatively. In addition, we found that high status women who used affiliative humor toward female targets (but not male targets) were viewed particularly negatively. In short, while men seem to be relatively immune to negative views of others when they use humor, the landscape is much more complicated for women. Unfortunately, this means many of the benefits of humor use noted above might be fraught with dangers for women, to which men are blissfully immune and perhaps unaware.

How does humor shape job satisfaction and culture?

In another study, conducted with my colleague Serge Pires da Motta Veiga at EDHEC Business School, we looked at the relationships between incidents of humor production (e.g., making a joke), humor appreciation (e.g., hearing a joke), positive emotions and job satisfaction, measured twice a day over the course of two weeks. 

We found that when people reported experiencing either type of humor, they experienced more positive emotions and reported higher job satisfaction. While this finding was interesting because it demonstrates a relationship between casual workplace humor and an important workplace outcome — job satisfaction — it probably confirms most people’s expectations. However, we also found that people who reported higher levels of job satisfaction at the end of one day were more likely to actively produce humor the next day. This finding provides evidence for a cyclical and cumulative effect of humor in the workplace: We use humor, and it makes us feel good and happier with our job, and that happiness with the job encourages us to produce more humor. So, it seems likely that while isolated incidents of humor might not have a lot of impact by themselves, there’s an important sense in which humor begets humor, and builds on itself to meaningfully shape an organization’s culture.

Can’t humor be used aggressively or in a coercive manner?

Finally, in a study conducted with my colleague at the University of Missouri, Jim Wall, we looked at humor use in civil mediations. We coded transcripts of 95 mediations and identified the incidents of humor. While we found that humor was used to lighten the mood, we also found humor was used very strategically and aggressively by the mediator. Mediators would use humor in a very sarcastic, pointed or sharp manner with disputants in order to get them to back off more extreme positions. At the same time, the disputants would use humor to help them diffuse and deflect the pressure of the mediators. This research demonstrated that while humor can be light-hearted and fun, it is also an important tool of communication that serves more calculated purposes.

What I try to demonstrate in my work is that humor is not simply an amusing and positive distraction in everyday life. Humor’s use is deeply ingrained in many of our day-to-day interactions, and sometimes in surprising ways. Humor can be fun and uplifting, but it’s also serious, and serious business.