Stop us if you've heard this one.
Two workers walk into the office and start telling jokes. The first one gets everyone laughing, and does a lot more too. She makes people think she's more competent, gets people to remember what she says and helps her team work better together.
The second worker bombs. Her humor offends people and alienates them. And she looks like she isn't serious about her job.
Most people are so afraid of looking like the second worker that they rarely try to use humor in the workplace. And, yes, it's a big gamble. But that means passing up a huge opportunity to shine.
Recent research shows that humor is a powerful tool that can burnish our image and build a stronger, more effective workplace. Teams communicate better and work better together when they tell jokes. Co-workers who make each other laugh are more likely to support each other and get better about solving problems—in short, more productive.
Here's a look at the latest findings on workplace humor—and how they can help us be funnier in what is often a serious part of our lives.
People communicate better when they joke.
We often assume we can't joke and work at the same time. Think of the classic image where employees are laughing, and then quickly get serious when the boss walks into the room. But humor can actually help people work better, by making them speak to each other more effectively.
Research led by Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock at VU University Amsterdam studied how patterns of humor in conversation—such as a joke followed by another joke or a joke followed by laughter—predicted other types of communication, as well as team performance, more broadly. The researchers found that teams that tell more jokes and laugh together also made more supportive and constructive statements to each other, things like "that's a great idea" or "we could solve this problem by doing X." That, in turn, led them to perform better on a number of measures, such as hitting goals and improving efficiency. The researchers surmised that humor could improve team interaction by triggering positive forms of communication.
A little sarcasm boosts creativity.
It's easy to equate sarcasm with being nasty or dismissive. But research led by Li Huang at Insead found that a bit of snarkiness may have a surprising upside. Across four studies, the team tested how making or receiving—or recalling making or receiving—a sarcastic comment boosted creativity. In one test, for instance, participants were shown a cartoon with a speech bubble. Some were asked to respond after having imagined that the person in the cartoon had said the comment to them in a serious or sarcastic manner. Others weren't given information about the tone of the speaker but were asked to respond to the person in a serious or sarcastic manner.
The researchers found that participants who experienced sarcastic exchanges were more likely to find the solution to a tasks that required creative insight, such as logic puzzles about rearranging shapes.
The researchers believe that sarcasm facilitates abstract thinking by making people leap from the literal meaning of sarcastic remarks to the intended meaning—which in turn boosts creativity.
That said, this doesn't mean people should bombard everyone in the office with ironic comments. The study found that sarcasm works best with co-workers who have a high level of trust. For low levels of trust, sarcasm increased creativity, but also led to greater perceived conflict.
Humor makes our statements memorable, but…
Obviously, serious statements seem more businesslike than jokes. Playing up something for laughs seems to take away from the importance of what we're saying. But things that sound professional don't always stick with people as long as jokes do.
A team led by Peter McGraw at the University of Colorado Boulder investigated the impact of humor on how people perceive and respond to complaints. In one study, they had participants review Facebook status updates that contained a serious complaint ("Found hair in my pasta at dinner tonight. Won't be back to #Claire's") or a humorous one ("Didn't know Gretzky's slap shots were landing on Zoe's steak grill. Hockey pucks for dinner #Zoe's"). Participants indicated that they were more likely to "like" a status update from a humorous complainer and were more likely to remember a humorous complaint.
However, in another study, Prof. McGraw found that participants also took the complaints less seriously and felt less sympathy for the humorous complainer. By talking about a negative event in a humorous way, we make it more memorable, but also suggest that it wasn't that distressing. And it isn't clear if serious complaints or humorous ones are more likely to be resolved.
Those findings imply a strategy for choosing which tone to use. When you want a particular individual to respond to your complaint, it is probably better to be serious. But when you want your message to be memorable and to reach a larger audience, humor could be more effective. For instance, if I want a customer-service representative to understand my frustration with my cable service, I probably want to be serious. If I want my dissatisfaction with my cable provider to be widely known on social media, humor is probably the better approach.
Humor demonstrates confidence.
We often imagine that if we joke around, we'll be seen as clowns who aren't serious about work. But in our own research we found that people's opinions of joke tellers is quite high—if the joke works.
In a series of studies conducted at Wharton, we asked participants to evaluate someone who either used humor or who remained serious as they delivered a presentation or answered interview questions. We found that people who told a joke were consistently rated as more confident. Why? Telling jokes is risky, and individuals who take that risk are perceived as being sure of themselves. Joke tellers were also seen as more intelligent and competent.
There are rewards that come with that. We found that because joke tellers are seen as more confident and competent, they are perceived as higher status and more likely to be selected as a group leader.
Many of our jokes will bomb.
For all the benefits joking can bring, it's very easy to step over the line. It takes only one inappropriate joke to get fired (although the joke that causes the termination will probably be memorable). At the very least, people who tell inappropriate jokes are seen as less intelligent and lower-status. Think of Michael Scott from "The Office" or Larry David's character on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." They are both very confident, but end up looking like idiots because of the comments they make.
Obviously, when telling jokes to colleagues, we should steer clear of jokes that are inappropriate (save your "Aristocrats" joke for your drinking buddies—or maybe keep it to yourself). And we should be humble when judging what colleagues will think is appropriate, because we probably don't know them as well as we think.
In a recent study led by Michael Yeomans at Harvard University, pairs of museum-goers were asked to predict what their companion would find funny. Many of the pairs included married couples, or people who had known each other for years. Even with the close connection between people, Dr. Yeomans found that they weren't very good at predicting what their partner would find funny. A statistical prediction model turned out to be much better at rating how funny their companion would rate a joke.
Dr. Brooks is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School's Negotiation, Organizations and Markets Unit and Mr. Bitterly is a Ph.D. student at the Wharton School. Maurice E. Schweitzer, the Celia Yen Koo professor of operations, information and decisions at the Wharton School, contributed to this article.Email them at email@example.com.
This article was licensed through Dow Jones Direct.
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