We should take humour in the workplace more seriously

By Matt Dallisson, 05/02/2019

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: “OK, now what?”

Did that make you laugh? It’s the funniest joke in the world, according to a huge experiment that was carried out in 2002 by psychologist Richard Wiseman. Almost 2 million people from 70 countries voted on more than 40,000 jokes, making the LaughLab study the world’s largest exercise (so far) into the mysterious notion of humour – and earning a Guinness world record along the way.

I have yet to come across anyone who doesn’t appreciate humour in some form. Sure, we might differ in terms of the things that tickle our funny bones – and the ones that definitely don’t – but a shared smile or belly laugh is one of the best bonding experiences around.

I should know; I’m the finance person who invariably has to follow some sexy, exciting presentation with updates on my beloved (but admittedly dry) numbers and percentages. And so over the years, I’ve found that the best way to capture people’s attention immediately is to start with something funny. I’m definitely not expected to be the comedian on the agenda, so it has the added effect of catching the audience off-guard.

As one of the millions of people who work in a global organization, this really struck a chord with me. I’m French, and I’ve been adapting to the things my international colleagues find funny for more than 20 years. I moved to our firm’s Chicago headquarters in 2014; although I’m still not sure that I really understand US humour, I do feel more comfortable laughing with my teammates four years down the line. Yet in all the teams I have worked with, we have always managed to create this common language of silly, sometimes absurd, humour that probably makes no sense outside the office.

This is what makes humour one of our most important forms of emotional expression. It’s a social behaviour that reveals who we really are – at least when it occurs spontaneously. It lets people know that we like them and understand them, enabling us to build and nurture relationships across hierarchies and even cultural divides.

That is why I see it as a workplace essential. We spend so much of our lives there, why shouldn’t we be able to express ourselves in an authentic way? Helpfully, science backs me up again here, because numerous studies have shown that, far from wasting time and destroying productivity, humour also makes good business sense.

Yet, in our increasingly crisis-driven world, humour can sometimes feel like a distant former acquaintance. Amazing advances in technology, like those emerging from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, offer the promise of more ways to connect with our fellow humans than ever before – but if we’re not careful, they could serve to erode the ties that bind us.

Of course sometimes that “fear” is entirely appropriate – it’s a bit like a safety net to stop us from hurting someone’s feelings or isolating ourselves. Wouldn’t it be awful if humour were to disappear from our workplaces as a result? Lots of large organizations appear to have grasped that there’s a problem, and are hiring humour consultants to help fix it. Personally, I find this a bit depressing, as it shows how far removed some working environments have become from our key human impulses – but at least it’s a start.

One thing is for sure; as organizations find themselves immersed in the global war for talent, the best weapon at their disposal is most likely to be their current workforce. This means that issues around employee engagement and collaboration are going to take on even greater significance in the coming years, if companies want to attract and keep the best people. Those who are able to motivate employees to enjoy their time at work will have a greater chance of success – and I believe that humour will be key.

Aim to laugh with someone, rather than at them. My own colleagues regularly make fun of the way I pronounce certain words in English, and it’s actually kind of funny to see how much they enjoy it. The important thing is that there’s no malice in their joking.