Humour undoubtedly plays a crucial role in our lives, especially social lives. We spend roughly 115 days of our life laughing. Work is another significant component. On an average, Indians spend 53 per cent of their waking time working. With work absorbing a good part of our lives and humour being a key ingredient of our existence, is there room for humour in the work setting?
The answer is yes; but things are far more serious inside organisations, compared to our lives outside. While this is not strange or bad, humour in organisations should be enough to create a pleasant working environment and support the company's goal, but cannot be an objective by itself. Humour is a powerful tool to boost companies' performance and to understand how companies work. For example, jokes that people tell at the workplace can reveal as much or perhaps more about the organisation, its management and culture than carefully administered surveys.
Speaking about performance, 81 per cent of the employees believe that humour can increase productivity. Some may argue that what employees perceive can be very different from what is in practice. Research, however, indicates that humour can have a positive impact on job performance. For example, humour can bring down stress levels at the workplace, thus increasing their productivity and reducing health-related absences. Humour also increases creativity and improves problem-solving since it promotes divergent thinking and permits to test ideas without being criticised. In fact, an idea conveyed with humour can be considered funny and also intriguing, while without humour the same idea could be simply considered too strange. Humour also enhances communication by creating a more open environment and evoking positive emotions that, in turn, improve listening, reciprocal understanding and message reception. Good and great leaders are often humorous, and using humour enhances leadership effectiveness, provided all other variables are the same.
It must be kept in mind that humour at the workplace can have many facets. A pretty common categorisation is between four main humour styles - affiliative, self-enhancing, aggressive and self-defeating. These humour styles are the result of a combination of two main dimensions - the humour initiator's intention (benevolent vs detrimental) and focus (self vs relationship).
Affiliative humour encourages interpersonal interactions and nurtures a positive working environment. Individuals who employ this style of humour have the tendency to tell jokes and funny stories, amuse others and enjoy laughing along with them. They are usually liked, and seen as non-threatening by others, since they use humour as a way to attract people and enhance social interactions. In an organisational context, indeed, affiliative humour helps to reduce interpersonal tensions and build relationships, enhance group cohesiveness and promote creativity. At an individual level, affiliative humour contributes to increased self esteem, mental equilibrium, social intimacy, psychological well-being, extraversion and openness; while reducing stress and anxiety.
Self-enhancing humour is generally used as a coping mechanism to reduce the negative impact of a stressful situation and keep a positive attitude. People who practise this style of humour show a witty approach to life and are not excessively concerned by its unavoidable troubles. In an organisational setting, self-enhancing humour can be used to improve one's own image before others, encourage creativity and reduce stress.
Aggressive humour is an offensive and compulsive expression of humour. It is used to deride, manipulate, victimise and provoke other kinds of disparagement. People who use this style often aim to influence others through an implicit threat of derision. It is usually adopted to insult or humiliate other people, in order to increase their anxiety. In an organisational setting, aggressive humour may be used especially by higher-level members to underline their rank or status towards lower-level employees.
Self-defeating humour is used by individuals who have a tendency to ridicule themselves, usually in order to make others laugh or to be liked by being the butt of their jokes. In an organisational context, individuals who use this style quite frequently may do it to reduce their status and make themselves closer to lower-level employees, or to feel more accepted by others. Self-defeating and affiliative humour are similar - both improve relationships. But they differ because the former is used at the initiator's expense.
Let's see how different humour styles can be applied to the same scenario. Setting: A company is spread out on five different floors of a building. There are two elevators; quite slow and not very reliable. At least twice every month someone gets stuck between the floors, and has to request the support of the maintenance department to exit it. Each elevator can carry up to four people (320 kg). On the right side of the elevators is the staircase. Two colleagues are waiting for the elevator, one of whom is overweight, and is carrying two books in one hand and three snacks on the other. Let us apply affiliative humour. Noticing the one with books and snacks, the colleague asks: "Food for your thoughts?" Smiling, the other replies: "No, it is just the survival kit for the elevator, just in case I get stuck for an entire day!" The humour is not against anyone (it is against the elevator, but I guess it does not mind). It is just harmless banter and creates a bond between colleagues.
Let us now apply self-enhancing humour. A third colleague passes the other two in order to take the staircase. They know each other for over 10 years and have a good relationship. One of the colleagues says: "The elevator is coming, would you like to ride it?" Smiling, the third one replies, "No thanks, I can go faster than that elevator by jumping on a single leg!" The employee highlights, in a benign way, his physical performance. This humorous reply is able to generate a moderate smile, not a loud laugh. Very often, self-enhancing humour is not the most powerful one.
Aggressive humour would be if the third colleague, who's going for the staircase, replied with this: "No thanks, I guess the elevator already has a lot of work with you two!" In this case, it is clear that the colleague is underlining the fact that one of the other colleagues is overweight. Even though the other two gave a timid smile in return (a fake one, mostly), in their minds they probably thought: "I hope you get hit by a car while crossing the street!"
How would self-defeating humour play out? In this case, let's assume that the third colleague is quite overweight himself. The other two are the same as before. When one of the colleagues asks: "The elevator is coming, would you like a ride?", and the third colleague replies, "No thanks, I do not want to be remembered as the person who made an attempt on the lives of his colleagues!" that would be self-defeating humour. The person is joking about his own physical condition to create a pleasant situation with his colleagues.
Sometimes, self-defeating humour can be used to protect ourselves. We expose our defects to communicate that we are aware of them, but also to convey the message that 'since I already make fun of my defects, there is no need for you to do the same'. It is a kind of anticipating strategy with the benefit that the humour contents are under our control. Normally, people use a mix of humour styles, but some of them are more frequent.
The writer is a Professor of Project Management at MISB Bocconi