Dear HR and Management folks.
I want to prove to you that humor in the workplace is not something that you should fear. Far from being something that should be cause for worry, humor properly used and enjoyed, taps into basic human needs to share and bond with those they’re close to—and yes, these means co-workers to. Take advantage of this, use it to create a better work environment, and I’ll bet advantages follow. If you want to learn how to do this from a professional, please reach out to me ;-)
When I tell people that I study humor, have a consultancy focusing on humor in business, sales, corporations, etc. the first response I get is, “that’s cool and we need more humor at work.” I say "Great!" And then I ask them to bring me in. Then my conversational partner gets immediately conservative and says, "Well, it's not that cool."
What they're worried about is that humor isn't serious, goofing off isn't a deliverable driven activity. And we pay people to deliver! But that's the problem with the modern workplace. There's very little room for anything but delivery and that that leads to terribly high levels of disengagement. What I suggest is that they try something different. Try some new development activities with your workforce. Who doesn’t love humor? Who wouldn’t love to know more about humor? But shortly the manager or human resources person gets cautious. S/he thinks, “Wait a second. Isn’t inviting more humor, more goofing off, just going to land me a whole lot more work? Sure, the jokes start out harmless enough, but soon I’ll see a stack of complaints that will keep me busy for months.”
To answer the question fairly, I’ll say this. To focus on solely the negative of humor is to misunderstand what humor largely does. Most humor isn't offensive. It's playful, enjoyable. We need that at work. We’ve all been around jokes that offend, perhaps we’ve even told them, but those are not typical. We’ve also been around jokes that are endearing and draw us closer to one another and that is more of what humor does. So don't throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to humor.
How many of you have noticed that workspaces where there is some humor, frivolity, and even the occasional gripe, is a more attractive place than the cubicle farm where no one interacts beyond the level of work? Show me a good working team and I'll show you one where humor is present. Show me a bad work environment and I'll show you a pleace bereft of humor and laughter. Don’t turn away from this basic need to share mirth. Embrace it!
How does humor, laughter, and mirth tap into our desire to bond? Two examples will suffice. Think of the sound of an infant’s laugh. Is there any laugh purer, more inviting than when a baby gets to giggling? It draws you in and keeps you engaged. When you walk into a room and people are laughing, it’s hard not to laugh along with them and you may not even know what’s funny. Laughter and smiles are important. As the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song says, “If you smile at me I will understand, 'cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.” (Wooden Ships).
Imagine we had just met. If you thought I was funny, this probably would make you more likely to want to hang out with me more in the future. People admire and appreciate a sense of humor. Not having a sense of humor is deemed more “unattractive” than other personality flaws such as being irritable. Why then would we not want to encourage more humor in the workplace? If humor, as has been suggested, has health benefits, then we’d be doing our employees a solid in bringing more humor into the workplace.
Humor isn’t always the cure for all problems. Humor can cover over, marginalize, or simply mock. In addition to knowing why and when humor works, we can become more aware of the sort of humor that divides. Sometimes the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t whether or not I am offended, it’s more that we should try to understand whether or not we should be offended. Even if I find a joke distasteful, does that mean I should be angry at the teller? If it was sincerely a joke and nothing more, I say no. We can be angry at a person for finding the subject worthy of being joked about, but not the joke. We too often focus on the immediate reaction than trying to suss out what is really at issue. And in those cases where the offense is real, we need to be strong enough to apologize, accept those apologies, and forgive.
Humor won’t solve all our problems, but it’s increase will make those problems easier to solve. When you and I laugh together, the rest is easy.