A User’s Guide to Humour at Work
Harvard Business Review, July-August 2020
People with sense of humour encourage others to loosen up and join in.
This doesn’t apply that well to leaders.
Humour can influence and reinforce status hierarchies in groups, build trust and strengthen relationships and make people communicate clearly.
… or can cost someone a job or a career.
Humour Can Enhance (and Hurt) Your Status
People at low-level positions become likeable thanks to their humour and get promoted faster than if they’re boring. At this level humour == status.
When leaders are using humour, their employees go above and beyond the call of duty.
Humour is benign violation [MK: i.e. a harmless emotional mischief]. Telling jokes makes a person somewhat vulnerable, but also confident and competent.
As a result, this projection of confidence hints at status. Same works for violating norms and expectations in a socially appropriate way [MK: it’s the cornerstone of Aviasales’s SMM strategy].
Humour —> wit —> raises prestige.
Going over the line of appropriateness has the opposite effect [MK: this is particularly true for intercultural communications]. Leaders lose status because of it.
Communication —> audience —> normative [i.e. what you should and should not do] motives (context-dependent)
Misjudging a motive, even for the same audience, but in the wrong context, is detrimental.
Jokes are social glue, but not when they’re veiled brags or insults.
Happen when an outsider doesn’t have the background info to “get” the joke.
When everyone’s an insider – work very well and serve as a glue.
When there are outsiders [MK: who care about the quality of information exchange and the decisions made] – group cohesion suffers.
Saying one thing and meaning the opposite —> requires high-level critical thinking boosting creativity.
Helps when solving creative problems. [MK: let’s make all problem creative!]
Not all new colleagues may be fit to quickly grasp sarcasm, and also to gain trust [MK: sarcasm can be mistaken for criticism or insult. In high-trust situations this doesn’t happen often].
An effective method to neutralize negative information about oneself.
Disclosing serious info about oneself using humour than in a serious manner makes individuals look warmer [MK: and more likeable]. Negative info presented in such a way is perceived as less important or true.
For lower-status people this is a no-no if it touches on an essential area of competence. Unless, of course, that’s one’s blind spot that has to be disclosed seriously.
Must not be used when this borders negligence or is in poor taste.
Dodging Difficult Situations
A range of possible responses: stay silent, explicitly lying, paltering [staying the truth to mislead], asking a question in response. Or using humour, which is cognitively distracting and helps with trust and proves that the person is sharp.
Delivering Negative Feedback
Makes criticism more memorable.
Has to be done carefully as the impact of the delivery via a joke is lessened. People are less compelled to act on the joke.
If the issue is not obvious, humour obscures the feedback making the employee think everything’s ok. [otherwise, if things are serious – why joke about them?]
A Coping Mechanism
Using humour to describe a negative situation relieve the stress – meaningfully long.
Focusing on humour leaves less willpower to focus on negative emotions in response to stress. [MK: that explains the rapid emergence of sitcoms]
Context matters, too. Responding with dark jokes to dark situations makes them worse. Kind/light jokes make the positive effect.
Timing makes a huge difference. A joke too soon (i.e. during the grieving period) is not the same joke post-acceptance.
Using it Wisely
Good comedy is context, time, place and audience dependent. Lots of this stuff is forgiven in a workplace.
Not everyone is comfortable telling jokes at a large audience —> stick to 1:1.
Emails may work, too. [MK: I encourage doing this with all my heart]
Word of the day:
levity – noun
the treatment of a serious matter with humour or lack of due respect.
"as an attempt to introduce a note of levity, the words were a disastrous flop"