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Funny business: Why humour on the job matters

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

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At the NewSprings megachurch in South Carolina, a pastor recently rode a four-wheeler on stage. Camouflage dominated the wardrobes at the pulpit.

The antics of the so-called Redneck Sermon Series have a point, said Pastor Perry Noble, whose Southern Baptist church often attracts 20,000 worshipers to its two locations each Sunday. Humorous subjects lead into serious sermons, like the one about how John the Baptist was himself a “blue collar, git-r-done kind of person.”

“If you can get people laughing, you can get people listening,” Noble said. “Once they get comfortable from laughing, they’re more likely to listen to the sermon and to what we’re trying to say.”

It’s no different for managers at the office, where humour can disarm uncomfortable situations and help employees identify with their bosses. Jokes aren’t a must for success as a manager, but studies suggest humour leads to creativity, better personal interactions and workplaces that are simply more fun. 

“Work has an insanely important impact on our lives, so why make it harder than it has to be?” said Michael Kerr, author of You Can't Be Serious! Putting Humor to Work.

Drawbacks?

Laughter, Kerr said, creates good workplaces, and that leads to success. But many managers worry about the drawbacks of exercising their funny bones. For one, they wonder whether all this funny business will lead to workplace lawsuits, Kerr said.

Avoiding legal pitfalls is often a matter of simple common sense. Any off-colour topic that wouldn’t be appropriate in any other social setting with strangers — like racial, ethnic, sexual or religious jokes — are bound to get you in trouble at work.

Another basic tenant of jokes in the office: they should never belittle an underling.

“The worst thing you can do,” Kerr said, “is turn a subordinate into a punch line.”

So what works: a boss who can make fun of herself and who can use self-deprecating humour to diffuse a tense situation. 

Consider the kind of humour that happens at the Zappos corporate headquarters in Henderson, Nevada. The online shoe store has a list of core values that include No. 3: “Create fun and a little weirdness.” 

It’s common to see bosses wearing an ironic muscle shirt during tank top Tuesdays, or helping create rainbow tutus then worn around the office. There’s also a not-so-polished 37-person choir, regularly scheduled Nerf gun wars between departments, and “Zappendales,” the occasional show comprised of male dancers with less-than-chiselled abs.

All that silliness has a purpose, said Vanessa Lawson, a senior trainer at Zappos who is also a part-time stand up comedian. Taking time out of the day for something ridiculous makes work fun, and when work becomes fun, things get done more quickly, she said.

Consider that workers in the Zappos call centre are required to spend 80% of their day taking calls, that is, being productive. That other 20% of the time, call centre employees are free to participate in, say, the office parades or short films uploaded to YouTube.

“To be honest, I have put so many men in drag in this company, you’d think there was something wrong with me,” Lawson joked.

But there’s a direct correlation, Lawson said, to giving employees the freedom to have fun at work and productivity. It has made Zappos employees less likely to leave and more likely to come up with new ideas. But through all of that, Lawson said, it’s also just about having a good time while getting work done.

Benefits

Zappos’ humour-centric corporate culture can be beneficial on several levels, said Jessica Mesmer Magnus, associate professor of management at the Cameron School of Business at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She was part of a team that published a paper last year in the Journal of Managerial Psychology on the benefits of workplace humour.

Humour can help managers relate with their employees, and that increases the likelihood that a subordinate will believe his boss understands what he does. A well-timed joke in a time of bad news can also make people feel that a manager has things under control. Joking around also correlates with broader keys to success, like accomplishing goals.

“Any type of positive humour seems to improve job satisfaction,” Magnus said. “Humour shows that you’re a real person and that you can relate to your employees on the same level.”

Trying too hard to be funny is, well, the opposite of humour. The managers who plan out jokes, recycle tired one-liners or force humour into the wrong situations will find their punch lines backfiring, Magnus said.

Magnus suggests humour can work well anywhere. She recently spent time in Germany, where smiles aren’t as culturally common. But Magnus said she was surprised to see that Germans enjoyed a joke at work as much as anyone — and saw the same benefit in bonding between managers and employees.

Using humour in business situations may be trickier in the Middle East or Southeast Asia. There, managers are often expected to exist well above employees, so sharing a joke may seem out of place.

 But Noble, the pastor at NewSprings, believes there’s something universal about laughter.

“Wherever you go, across this country or anywhere in the world, people sound exactly the same when they laugh,” Noble said. “You can get two people together, and if they can share a laugh, they find something in common.”

Humour, then, just might be the business world’s universal language.

If you can get people laughing, you can get people listening. — Perry Noble

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