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The power of humour at work

We’re a nation in mourning, united by events which affect all of us, no matter what our politics or allegiances. Such events affect teams in organisations in a wide variety of ways, providing a leader with an opportunity to bring people together with sensitivity, dignity and respect. Should the response always be sombre though, or is there room for levity and humour?

Research shows that leaders with even a meagre sense of humour are viewed as 27% more motivating and admired than those who don’t use humour.

Their teams are 15% more engaged and more than twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge.

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Historically, the court jester would poke fun in order to share in an indirect way feedback from ‘ordinary people’. The jester’s role often became that of an unofficial advisor, able to say things that other courtiers and officials would be afraid to say.

Through humour, the jester offered a valuable reality check. Today this supportively critical role is played by the ‘office joker’ who might mimic the boss or perhaps draw caricatures, or even by corporate entertainers who are hired to speak at annual conferences.

There are many different events that will bring down the mood of a team. The loss of a team member is an unthinkable yet inevitable one, redundancy is another all too common example.

To use humour effectively in such situations is a very delicate balance which most people would rather avoid for fear of getting it wrong.

Clearly, such events are not laughing matters, however with the benefit of the passage of time, people will often reminisce with stories that make them laugh. Perhaps our brains are wired to make us forget the bad things that happen and add colour and lightness.

Without such a mechanism, we might lose our sense of optimism and hope for the future. This, then, is the role of humour in dark times, a glimpse of the brighter days ahead and a reminder that time heals all wounds.

By using humour in such situations, the leader might be accelerating that natural process of healing. If something is funny, it’s funny, regardless of the timing or the context. The joke doesn’t change, only the gentleness of its delivery.

One of the most common concerns that people have about using humour in the workplace is their fear of crossing the line, of saying something which is ill-judged, tasteless, or even offensive.

You can’t find the line without testing it. As you practice sharing that humour with others, you’ll notice when others respond and when they don’t, and you’ll notice when you get things wrong, when you cross the line from someone else’s point of view.

What you experience in this moment is the pang of social rejection, and many people will respond by becoming defensive and even aggressive. Apologise sincerely, learn from it. You can offend someone once. You weren’t to know their life story. There’s no need to keep doing it, though.

In-jokes might be fun to share with that one colleague who shares your views, but an inside joke creates outsiders. It’s exclusive, it divides, it isolates. If you’re not laughing, you’re an outsider. Laughter only works if you all laugh together.

Humour has a powerful role in empathy. It’s the realisation that you’re not alone in your crazy thoughts and actions that makes you laugh. We regard ordinary experiences as unworthy of a joke until we share them with each other.

The scientists who study laughter would describe this as affiliative humour, intended to bring people together by laughing at their common afflictions.

Even in the darkest of times, there’s something that seems ironic, strange, out of place or just plain silly. The leader who skilfully uses humour to unite a team isn’t afraid to draw attention to something that, in any other context would bring a smile to your face.

The power of humour is in uniting us against a world that continues to throw surprises at us. Laughter is our last line of defence. When you see someone suffering, you have a choice. You can point and laugh, and you can join them; try to help them and make a disarming comment that leaves you both smiling at the fact that the world is out to get you, and at least you’re not alone.


Paul Boross is a business psychologist, performance coach, keynote speaker and author of Humourology: The Serious Business of Humour at Work