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Have You Heard This One?

May 28, 2021


Have you heard the joke about paper? It’s tearable. Or the one about Jean-Paul Sartre sitting at a French cafe, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.” The waitress replies, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?” Or have you heard about the Buddhist who refused Novocaine during a root canal? His goal: Transcend dental medication. Okay, they may be bad jokes; however, experts are insisting humor can help your business — maybe not bad jokes, but a good sense of fun.


We’ve all heard that laughter is the best medicine. It turns out, laughter is also good for business. According to Naomi Bagdonas (@nbagdonas), a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, “Humor is a superpower in business, now more than ever.”[1] Journalist S. Mitra Kalita (@mitrakalita) reports, “Humor, which study after study has shown leads to deeper trust between leaders and workers, as well as greater job satisfaction, will likely be reimagined in the post-COVID workplace.”[2] One of the post-pandemic challenges leaders may face, however, is learning, once again, how to use humor in the workplace. Director and actor Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) asserts, “We’re withholding our jokes out of fear that it will hurt someone who is experiencing COVID-related suffering, home-school-related suffering, end-of-democracy suffering, or have-to-pretend-to-be-amused-by-your-Zoom-fake-background suffering.”[3] As the business world re-emerges from lockdowns and remote work, learning to be humorous again could take some practice.


The Benefits of Humor in the Workplace


“Work may seem like a serious place,” writes Jessica Lindsey, a Research Coordinator at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, “But, according to research, introducing some laughter into work life can contribute to our well-being and productivity. … The funny stories [we share] remind us that a little playfulness goes a long way toward a more enjoyable work life. Humor creates an atmosphere of levity and a sense of perspective that can dissolve tension and, in turn, protect us from stress at work and even benefit our health. Moreover, research suggests that people who engage in more conversational humor with colleagues feel happier and have higher job satisfaction.”[4] In the following video, Bagdonas and Connor Diemand-Yauman, a member of McKinsey’s Consortium for Learning Innovation, explain why they believe humor is a super-power in business.



Not only can humor make our work environments more pleasant, it can make us more productive. As Diemand-Yauman points out in the video, “In one study, researchers found that people who watched a humorous film clip before taking a short-term memory test recalled more than twice as much information as those in a control group.” He added, “The point is — and this is why we work with so many executives on humor in leadership — is that humor isn’t just for fun, although it is a lot of fun. But it’s also a critical leadership skill, like communication [and] self-awareness.” Joel Stein notes, “Humor helps directly with your bottom line, too. Employees who rate their bosses as having any sense of humor at all are 15% more satisfied in their jobs and rate their bosses as 27% more motivating and admired. Even a lighthearted line at the end of a sales pitch increases customers’ willingness to pay by 18%. A study from Harvard Business School showed that putting a lame pun at the end of testimonials as to why people should visit Switzerland (‘the flag is a big plus’) made readers think the person who wrote it was 37% higher in status, and also more competent and confident.”[5]


Humor, however, is not just for leaders. Lynn Harris, founder and CEO of Gold Comedy, states, “I believe comedy is power. When you make people laugh, you make people listen. It’s a way to punch at power.”[6] Journalist Leigh Buchanan (@LeighEBuchanan) adds, “Research shows that displays of appropriate humor raise perceptions of confidence and competence, which in turn increase status. Humor is also linked to intelligence. Even laughter — if it’s loud, variable in tone, and higher in pitch — suggests higher status. The presumption is that people in power are more uninhibited and comfortable expressing emotions.”[7] Not all humor, however, is business friendly. Journalist Rachel Feintzeig (@RachelFeintzeig) explains, “Nail it, and humor can bond teams, boost your career and make even the most boring and stressful jobs bearable. Miss, and you can face awkward silence on Zoom, offended colleagues — or even worse, public ridicule on social media.”[8]


Being Funny without Being Offensive


Author Andrew Tarvin writes, “You probably know that there are many benefits of humor in the workplace. It encourages creativity, and it can help improve relationships, which leads to a better work culture. But it would be wrong not to mention the dangers of humor. Bob Mankoff, a former cartoon editor at the New Yorker, says humor can ‘unite and divide, teach and taunt, attract and repel.’”[9] He adds, “Humor is like a screwdriver — an incredibly useful tool that often involves a twist. When used in the right context, it can help you construct and deconstruct any number of objects. But to get the benefits, you have to use it correctly. If you try to use a Phillips head screwdriver on one of those screws that looks like a star, it won’t fit. Humor is a fantastic tool when you use it appropriately. When you don’t, it can have serious consequences.” He describes three potential dangers of the inappropriate uses of humor in the workplace:


DANGER NO. 1: IT CAN DISTRACT PEOPLE. Tarvin explains, “Distraction can sometimes be a good thing. If you’re stressed out at work and near the point of burnout, taking a break to recharge can be valuable. But distraction can also create disaster.” He cites the work of Dr. Jim Lyttle, who observes, “While [humor] may seem harmless enough on a personal level, tomfoolery can lead workers to ignore quality or safety standards.” In other words, when focus is essential, humor is not appropriate.


DANGER NO. 2: IT CAN DIVIDE PEOPLE. Tarvin writes, “Humor has this incredible ability to bring people closer. When we laugh or smile together, we create a human-to-human connection. But it can also divide us.” John C. Meyer, an associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, told Tarvin, “[Humor] can divide by creating in- and out-groups and accentuating power differences. If you’re not in on the joke, humor doesn’t create a connection. It destroys it. The shared laughter of the in-group says, ‘We’re cool with each other but not with you.’”


DANGER NO. 3: IT CAN DISPARAGE PEOPLE. Tarvin writes, “At its best, humor is a positive force for good. At its worst, it’s a tool used to suppress ideas, destroy self-esteem, and make people feel terrible.” Jennifer Aaker, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, shares this advice, “Just don’t make fun of anyone’s basic identity or background. The jokes that are rooted in these things aren’t any more necessary to society than smoking in an airplane on a cross-country trip.”[10]


Concluding Thoughts


Tarvin concludes, “At the end of the day, humor is a tool. And just like any tool, it can be used to create or destroy. You need to be aware of its potential dangers to mitigate them.” You can be funny without being hurtful or disparaging. With the right kind of humor, delivered in the appropriate work environment, you can lighten your co-workers’ lives and make the workplace more enjoyable for everyone.


[1] Naomi Bagdonas and Connor Diemand-Yauman, “Laugh more, lead better,” McKinsey & Company, 15 April 2021.
[2] S. Mitra Kalita, “Humor may be the surprising key to rebuilding trust—and reconnecting with coworkers again,” Fortune, 31 March 2021.
[3] Joel Stein, “This Is Not a Joke: The Cost of Being Humorless,” Insights by Stanford Business, 28 January 2021.
[4] Jessica Lindsey, “How a Little Humor Can Improve Your Work Life,” Greater Good Magazine, 15 October 2019.
[5] Stein, op. cit.
[6] Kalita, op. cit.
[7] Leigh Buchanan, “Why Funny Leaders Are Better Leaders, According to 2 Stanford Professors,” Inc., 1 February 2018.
[8] Rachel Feintzeig, “How to Be Funny—Not Offensive—at Work,” The Wall Street Journal, 21 February 2021.
[9] Andrew Tarvin, “These are the dangers of using humor in the workplace,” Fast Company, 22 May 2019.
[10] Feintzeig, op. cit.

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