Humour - one of our most important forms of emotional expression - is fundamental to a healthy workplace. Image: REUTERS/Chris Wattie
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Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?”
Did that make you laugh? It’s the funniest joke in the world, according to a huge experiment that was carried out in 2002 by psychologist Richard Wiseman. Almost 2 million people from 70 countries voted on more than 40,000 jokes, making the LaughLab study the world’s largest exercise (so far) into the mysterious notion of humour – and earning a Guinness world record along the way.
I have yet to come across anyone who doesn’t appreciate humour in some form. Sure, we might differ in terms of the things that tickle our funny bones – and the ones that definitely don’t – but a shared smile or belly laugh is one of the best bonding experiences around.
Start with something funny
I should know; I’m the finance person who invariably has to follow some sexy, exciting presentation with updates on my beloved (but admittedly dry) numbers and percentages. And so over the years, I’ve found that the best way to capture people’s attention immediately is to start with something funny. I’m definitely not expected to be the comedian on the agenda, so it has the added effect of catching the audience off-guard.
Humour in the workplace is something that the majority of us use and enjoy instinctively, but there is plenty of scientific research to confirm what those natural impulses tell us: humour is good for us. Psychologists Herbert Lefcourt and Rod Martin were among the first to prove that stressed-out people with a strong sense of humour became less depressed and anxious than those in whom it was less well-developed.
Even the anticipation of having a good chuckle increases levels of beta-endorphins, which make us feel good, and of the human growth hormone, which helps keep our immune system functioning.
Is humour in the workplace all about telling jokes? Well, no.
Robert Provine, a psychologist from the University of Maryland, found that we actually laugh most when talking to our friends. Rather than jokes, we are sharing statements and comments that, on the surface, do not appear to be funny at all – and quite often go beyond the bounds of what might be considered “appropriate”. Like creativity, humour often works best when it violates what is considered to be the norm.
As one of the millions of people who work in a global organization, this really struck a chord with me. I’m French, and I’ve been adapting to the things my international colleagues find funny for more than 20 years. I moved to our firm’s Chicago headquarters in 2014; although I’m still not sure that I really understand US humour, I do feel more comfortable laughing with my teammates four years down the line. Yet in all the teams I have worked with, we have always managed to create this common language of silly, sometimes absurd, humour that probably makes no sense outside the office.
This is what makes humour one of our most important forms of emotional expression. It’s a social behaviour that reveals who we really are – at least when it occurs spontaneously. It lets people know that we like them and understand them, enabling us to build and nurture relationships across hierarchies and even cultural divides.
Humour makes good business sense
That is why I see it as a workplace essential. We spend so much of our lives there, why shouldn’t we be able to express ourselves in an authentic way? Helpfully, science backs me up again here, because numerous studies have shown that, far from wasting time and destroying productivity, humour also makes good business sense.
For a start, humour in the workplace encourages us to collaborate, provides motivation and can help prevent burnout. Research also shows that it’s a sign of a successful leader: when used effectively, it signals confidence, competence and high status. What’s more, in workplaces where humour is shared openly, the culture tends to be one that encourages people to be themselves, and the result is a more loyal and productive workforce.
Yet, in our increasingly crisis-driven world, humour can sometimes feel like a distant former acquaintance. Amazing advances in technology, like those emerging from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, offer the promise of more ways to connect with our fellow humans than ever before - but if we’re not careful, they could serve to erode the ties that bind us.
The fact that we are augmenting human capabilities using artificial intelligence means that many of our new future “relationships” will only ever be virtual.
At the same time, social media has given anyone with an internet connection a platform for negative comments and trolling – as well as a visible online history. We saw one example of the potential consequences of this just the other week when the comedian Kevin Hart stepped down as host of the Oscars, after complaints about some of his previous tweets.
With so many online – and face-to-face – incidents having their origins in jest or misunderstanding, together with a society that is becoming more risk-averse and litigious, all these things combined could be helping to promote a fear factor (or what has been called a “spiral of silence”), where people become increasingly reluctant to express themselves freely at work.
Of course sometimes that “fear” is entirely appropriate – it’s a bit like a safety net to stop us from hurting someone’s feelings or isolating ourselves. Wouldn’t it be awful if humour were to disappear from our workplaces as a result? Lots of large organizations appear to have grasped that there’s a problem, and are hiring humour consultants to help fix it. Personally, I find this a bit depressing, as it shows how far removed some working environments have become from our key human impulses - but at least it’s a start.
One thing is for sure; as organizations find themselves immersed in the global war for talent, the best weapon at their disposal is most likely to be their current workforce. This means that issues around employee engagement and collaboration are going to take on even greater significance in the coming years, if companies want to attract and keep the best people. Those who are able to motivate employees to enjoy their time at work will have a greater chance of success – and I believe that humour will be key.
Tips for adding humour in the workplace
So how do we beat the fear factor – without having to call in the humour consultants?
Here are my tips:
1. Keep it appropriate
In France, it’s quite usual to make fun of people when they do or say something silly. And often the funniest thing to say is something that seems completely beyond the appropriate boundaries. The point is to be aware of who you’re joking with and which buttons, good or bad, your comment might press. If in doubt, as someone else wrote: “Keep it PC and PG”.
2. Base your humour on good intentions
Aim to laugh with someone, rather than at them. My own colleagues regularly make fun of the way I pronounce certain words in English, and it’s actually kind of funny to see how much they enjoy it. The important thing is that there’s no malice in their joking.
3. Be prepared to laugh at yourself (and be yourself)
Humour in the workplace should be positive. Moreover, we don’t need the chatbots to take over. Yet.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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