“Hey, did you hear the one about…?”
Do work humor and playfulness divert us from engaging with work, and engaging with each other, or is it a mental, emotional and interpersonal pathway to engagement?
W.C. Fields once said that explaining humor was like dissecting a frog, what you find is interesting but it is no longer full of life. Of course he also said, “Start your day off with a smile and get it over with.”
My last name is Zinger, which means a quick or witty remark. Humor has always been a key part of my life and work because I was born a Zinger and I grew up in a family with four other Zingers. I spent three years studying humor and relationships, culminating in a Master of Education thesis on humor.
My number one signature strength identified by the VIA Signature Strength Survey is humor and playfulness. Much to my own consternation, bravery was last on my list of 24 strengths. When war breaks out, I am more likely to act like Bob Hope than General Patton. We need to play with the cards we are given, and I was dealt a joker.
Workplace funny comes in 50 shades of grey. This humor continuum ranges from laughter preventing burnout and strengthening relationships to sarcasm that can negatively impact others. Let’s delve into this grey matter.
The lighter shade of humor
Here are some of the positive ways humor impacts employee engagement and well-being:
- A great stress reliever as it tends to lighten our load. If you can laugh about a tough situation (even for a moment) it’s no longer quite the same when you pick it up again.
- Can be a retention strategy because when you laugh, you last. When we play together, we stay together — and feel stronger connections.
- Can build and strengthen relationships; the shortest distance between two people is often a good laugh.
- Coupled with playfulness humor can heighten creative thinking and enable us to see fresh new perspectives. Humor often requires that we know things so well that we can now see situations from a playful perspective. Humor frequently works its magic with surprise, incongruity, and unanticipated directions.
- Can help us manage setbacks. According to Theresa Amabile and Steven Kraemer in The Progress Principle, setbacks take a huge toll on employee engagement and motivation. They outlined the importance of managing setbacks. Gaining or shifting perspective can be vital in setback management. Charlie Chaplin said it better than any psychologist, “Life is a tragedy in close-up and a comedy in longshot.” How long does it take you to get a longshot on your setbacks?
The darker shade of humor
Conversely, humor can also have a negative impact:
- May be used for masked aggression. We can attack someone with humor and, if they reply that they did not find our comment or banter funny, we can further attack them by saying they don’t have a sense of humor, telling them to lighten up, or casually dismissing them with the classic "I was only kidding.”
- Taken to extremes humor can divert us from work if we spend so much time being funny that we don’t attend fully to the task at hand.
- Can be disruptive during certain meetings and employee gatherings — resulting in more of a breakdown of communication than a breakthrough in results.
- Can be false and insincere, thereby lowering trust and authenticity in workplace interactions.
What makes funny functional?
The intent and impact of humor at work may be more important than the content. Sarcasm can be quite destructive in certain groups but when the intent is to stay connected, build the group, and keep everyone on the same level, it may be quite functional.
A good barometer of functional humor is to determine if caring is embedded in the humor.
Six humor resources to help you lighten your load at work
- Read Dilbert each day or read the Harvard Business Review November issue interview with Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.
- Visit the Employee Engagement Network home page once a week to see a new cartoon on work by John Junson. Three of his cartoons appear in this post.
- Check out the business parody section on the Onion. As an old Chinese Beatitude declares, “Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves they shall never cease to be entertained.”
- Follow the New Yorker Cartoons on Facebook.
- Check out the monthly post from the Harvard Business Review on Strategic Humor and take a crack at the cartoon caption contest.
- If you want to maintain your serenity at work, I recommend reciting the following modified serenity prayer: God grant me the laughter to see the past with perspective, face the future with hope and celebrate today without taking myself too seriously. (Source unknown).
Humor can be a wonderful tool to transform our workplaces from stagnancy to a place of engagement. It can help build relationships among colleagues and foster a more collaborative output. And since an engaged workforce is critical to organizational success, injecting a little humor in the workday could be just the thing to foster a high-performance culture.
With this point in mind, you’re welcome to a complimentary PDF download of Assorted Zingers: Poems and Cartoons to Take a Bite Out of Work, a business book based on cartoon and poems, which I co-authored with John Junson.
I hope reading it brings a smile to your day.
Your turn: How do you inject humor into your workplace?