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.

Context Matters

  • 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.

Inside Jokes

  • 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"