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Knock, knock. How To Use Humour At Work Without Offending HR


Ever heard of the humour cliff? 

If you're over thirty, chances are you're already at the bottom of it, floating in a dreary puddle of level-headedness and restraint.  

A 2013 Gallup survey asking the simple question 'Did you laugh a lot today?' shows a steep drop-off in laughter frequency from age 23 onwards – coincidentally, when many of us join the workforce.

Is it that we collectively enter an age of depression the moment we step into the office? Or do we edit ourselves under the (mis-)guise of professionalism? 

If the reason for your office sourness is that you want to be taken more seriously at work, I suggest you try tickling your colleagues' funny bones a bit more often. 

I'll explain why.

But first, a few fun facts about humour

  • Rats know how to laugh too and have very ticklish necks. That makes kissing them gently in all the right places for long enough a highly effective way to kill them. 

  • Studies found that couples who often laugh together also stay together. Unless they combine that with an open-door bathroom policy. 

  • Laughing for ten minutes burns 30 calories – the same as a ten-minute ugly cry. 

  • No, gelotophobia does not mean a fear of Italian ice cream. It’s a phobia of being laughed at. Apparently, 13 per cent of the population suffers from it. These poor folks will interpret any joke as a personal insult. 

  • In the 3rd century BC, Greek philosopher Chrissippus died from laughter while watching his favourite donkey getting drunk on fermented figs. Chrissipus was a brilliant philosopher and a leading Stoic thinker. Yet, we’ll always remember him as the ass who died laughing at his own joke.  

Enough internet for today. 

Why humour at work matters

Humour is universal across all cultures and individuals. We're hard-wired to laugh, mainly when others are around. According to research, laughter is so infectious that we're thirty times more likely to laugh in a social context than on our own. 

Yet, despite getting so many social interactions from work, most of us are incredibly cautious when bringing humour into the office. As a result, most workplaces tend to be as void of joy as your average funeral parlour. 

Keen as we are to cultivate a reputation of professionalism and composure, we’ve become incredulous about the fact that bringing more fun into work has any benefits. Never mind that there are plenty. Not only does humour significantly enhance problem-solving, participation and ideas generation, but it also positively correlates with employee satisfaction, group cohesion and health. Indeed, bringing more glee into your workday can drastically reduce stress and burnout rates.  

It's obvious why. Humour pushes through the tension barrier and puts others at ease. It's an excellent humaniser and helps build your brand by giving others a glimpse of who's hiding underneath that professional facade. 

Humour also creates an atmosphere of togetherness. It's relaxing and encourages people to be more playful with ideas, thus making it an excellent catalyst for creative thinking and challenging entrenched work practices.

How humour can lift your professional status 

Demonstrating humour impacts your personal branding. Indeed, your ability to bring laughter affects how others perceive your confidence, competence, warmth, and clarity of communication. 

Those that are good at making appropriate and funny jokes often climb the corporate ladder faster than those who aren’t. A study on the riskiness of humour at work by Bitterly and Brooks (2017) found that workers of lower professional status who often used humour were likelier to be nominated by their peers for leadership positions than those who didn’t. This link between status and humour proved so strong that simply asking individuals to remember a humorous exchange with a co-worker was enough to shift their perceptions of this co-worker’s status positively. 

Jokes work by raising tension and then releasing that tension in an unexpected way. That’s why we often laugh at things that make us uncomfortable. The joke teller challenged our psychological safety but then restored it with a quip or a surprising twist.  

This explains why we often attribute more prestige to a person who tells a joke. If it was a good joke – in other words, if it violated our expectations in a socially and contextually appropriate way – we’ll admire that person as more intelligent, confident and competent. Their confidence to place a well-timed joke has increased their prestige in the eyes of the receiver because they had the audacity to violate our psychological safety. 

However, the opposite happens if the joke teller creates an ‘ouch’ moment or is perceived to have crossed a line. We’ll still consider them more confident, but we’ll lower their status and prestige, particularly if they are already of high status or in a leadership position. Think of David Brent or Michael Scott in the UK and US versions of The Office

So, while making jokes at work can pay off nicely, inherent risks are involved. Not even professional comedians successfully straddle the boundary between what is appropriate and what isn’t. 

There are potential gender differences to consider, too, with some studies suggesting that women using humour at work may lower their status, while others suggest the opposite. 

No need to be a comedian at work

Being more humorous at work doesn’t require you to become the office clown. It’s more about cultivating an attitude of joy and fun than about telling jokes. 

Some are naturally funnier than others, but humour is a muscle that can be developed. Even if you’re the comedic equivalent of Marge Simpson, you can still increase your status at work in various ways. Witty banter, goofy memes, unusual icebreakers, excruciating Christmas jumpers – there are endless options to safely introduce a bit more joy at work.

If you’re anxious about making jokes during a presentation or in a large group, practise adding more humour to your one-to-one conversations with colleagues first. And if you’re naturally more serious, even in those one-to-ones, you can always try and make your written communication a little lighter. Besides, if you look at your office environment through the lens of a fly-on-the-wall documentary maker, I promise you you’ll find plenty of material to put your own sitcom together.  

And even if you suck at all of the above or don’t dare to draw attention to yourself, you needn’t worry. Rather than be the creator, you can participate in other people’s humour simply by being more generous with your laughter. 

Bringing a bright and shiny attitude to work doesn’t cost much effort, nor does laughing at someone else’s jokes (as long you find them funny and appropriate). It’ll make you a more pleasant person to be around and it’ll rid you of that Italian ice cream phobia. 

Top tips for using humour at work

Here are some helpful tips if you want to add more humour to the daily grind. 

Tip #1: Always look for the truth. Have you noticed how masterful comedians are at turning everyday occurrences into hilarious jokes? That's because they encourage us to look at the world differently. Indeed, they're great at observing the world around them and then exposing a truth about that world – a truth nobody else may have noticed before. 

You too can practise this by paying closer attention to your office environment and making straightforward observations of what you find amusing or interesting – indeed, the truth behind things. Look for the humour and randomness in those observations, and then notice what happens once you start sharing them with others.

Tip #2: Use sarcasm at work, but carefully. What makes sarcasm funny is that you say one thing, but you mean the opposite. It boosts creativity because it requires a high level of abstract thinking, both of the joke teller and the receiver. 

However. Sarcasm also produces higher levels of conflict, especially when the teller and receiver have underlying trust issues. Plus, plenty of misunderstandings abound when working with colleagues from cultures where this form of rather aggressive humour is uncommon or with colleagues you don't know well.   

Tip #3: Inside jokes are a double-edged sword. Inside humour occurs when only some of those present have enough background to understand the joke. It's funny for those in the know and highlights their togetherness. But it's not amusing for everybody else as it only highlights their outsiderness. 

Inside jokes at work are acceptable, but you must include everyone in situations where the group dynamic is at stake. There's already plenty of opportunity for conflict at work – no need to create additional fault lines. 

Tip #4: Dodge difficult questions with humour. My favourite. Humour is a good circuit breaker when asked a difficult question because it's cognitively distracting. It's the equivalent of a magician splitting their audience’s focus with a clever sleight of hand or a well-placed mirror. Besides, as I pointed out earlier, well-placed humour can make us look more intelligent and skilled, so double whammy. 

Dodging questions this way only works in situations requiring tension relief. In other words, where seriousness and composure aren't required. A politician may get away with it in a TV show panel, but it might not work for you in a board meeting or a job interview. 

Tip #5: Use self-deprecating humour sparingly at work. Self-deprecating humour allows you to take the initiative in neutralising negative information about yourself. Adding a bit of humour to your self-disclosure often means people will consider you more likeable. They'll also interpret any negative information you share as less important or accurate than if you had delivered it more earnestly. 

However, this backfires when you self-deprecate in any of your core competencies or areas you're supposed to be a specialist. Nobody wants to hear an air traffic controller joking about being bad at maths or a surgeon quipping about his shaky hands. And don't use it too often, or else people will start to think you have low self-esteem.  

Tip #6: Avoid humour when delivering negative feedback. Being playful and jokey when giving bad news or negative feedback does lighten the mood. But, while it might be easier for you to get a difficult message across, the receiver will interpret the information as more benign than intended and therefore feel less compelled to take action. 

Keep the joking for less severe instances. Practise your delivery with radical candour instead. 

Tip #7: Know your style. Most people naturally fall into one or two of the following humour categories:

  • Magnetic: Charismatic, easy to make laugh and expressive

  • Sniper: Master of the unexpected dig, sarcastic, nuanced and edgy

  • Stand-up: Not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, bold and irreverent

  • Sweetheart: Use humour that lightens to mood, often understated and earnest 

The more you understand your style and that of your colleagues, the better you'll be able to read the room and time your humour. You can take a short test here to find out.

Tip #8: It’s all about the feels. Don’t concern yourself too much with wanting to come across as funny and delivering on-point jokes with perfect timing. The intention is not for you to become the next Wanda Sykes or Ricky Gervais.

Make this about how you want people to feel after their interactions with you. Focus on building your executive presence and charisma by becoming a more joyful colleague or leader to be around. Remember that humour, professionalism and confidence go hand in hand.  

Tip #9: Your humour doesn’t even have to be funny. I saved the best for last because this is the most important tip of all.

Research suggests that as long as people see your humour as appropriate, you’ll still be regarded as more confident, even if nobody laughed at your joke. 

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I send out one short email at the end of each month with a few practical tips on how to develop a more meaningful and exciting life and career.

You'll also be the first to find out about my next group coaching programme and upcoming retreats.