“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Tasteful humor is a key to success at work, but there’s a good chance your co-workers aren’t cracking jokes or packaging information with wit on a regular basis–and your office could probably stand to have a little more fun.
“Humor, by its nature, tends to have an edge to it, so people typically tone it down at work,” says Laura Vanderkam , author of What the Most Successful People Do at Work (Portfolio, 2013), and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2012). “It’s hard to do well and easy to do badly. Plus, we all have a tendency to take ourselves way too seriously.
”Michael Kerr, an international business speaker, president of Humor at Work , and author of The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank (Dec. 2013), says the amount or type of humor you’ll find in any given workplace depends almost entirely on the culture. “In workplaces that encourage people to be themselves–that are less hierarchical and more innovative–people tend to be more open with their humor,” he says. “Even people who aren’t always comfortable sharing their humor tend to do so in more relaxed environments where the use of humor becomes second nature with everyone’s style.”
Then there are workplaces with employees who tone down their humor, often with the desire to be taken more seriously, he adds. “Yet, this can backfire as people who take themselves overly seriously are often, ironically, taken less seriously by the people around them.”
Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant , believes employees are much more comfortable using humor with colleagues than they are with their bosses. “You face a higher risk factor when joking around with your boss because you just don’t know how your lightheartedness may be taken. So, you generally find greater reticence to use humor with senior managers.”
Other reasons workers might hold back: A fear of offending someone; a fear of not being funny—that their humorous attempts will crash and burn; or the unwillingness to “get the ball rolling.”
“Many leaders, especially introverts, don’t know how to safely encourage the use of more humor at work and are unsure how to express it in their own leadership style,” Kerr explains. “Many of my clients also simply cite a lack of time as a key dampening factor. The desire is there, but they simply don’t know how to bring more humor into their busy work life.”
Whatever the reason may be, if you or your colleagues tend to be dry and dull in the office, you’ll want to work on injecting more humor into your workday.
Kerr says dozens of surveys suggest that humor can be at least one of the keys to success. A Robert HalfInternational survey, for instance, found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Another study by Bell Leadership Institute found that the two most desirable traits in leaders were a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor.
“At an organizational level, some organizations are tapping into what I’d call ‘the humor advantage,’” Kerr says. “Companies such as Zappos andSouthwest Airlines LUV +1.09% have used humor and a positive fun culture to help brand their business, attract and retain employees and to attract customers.”
Taylor says humor demonstrates “maturity and the ability to see the forest through the trees.” You don’t have to be a stand-up comedian, she adds, “but well-placed humor that is clever and apropos to a business situation always enhances an employee’s career.”
Here are 10 additional reasons why humor is a key to success at work:
People will enjoy working with you. “People want to work with people they like,” Vanderkam says. “Why wouldn’t you? You spend huge chunks of your waking hours at work, so you don’t want it to be a death march. Humor–deftly employed–is a great way to win friends and influence people. You need to be funny, but not snarky (that’s not good for team building) and you can’t offend anyone.”
Humor is a potent stress buster. “In fact, it’s a triple whammy,” Kerr explains. “Humor offers a cognitive shift in how you view your stressors; an emotional response; and a physical response that relaxes you when you laugh.”
It is humanizing. “Humor allows both employees and managers to come together, realizing that we all seek common ground,” Taylor says.
It puts others at ease. Humor is a way to break through the tension barrier, she says.
“Research shows that humor is a fabulous tension breaker in the workplace,” Kerr adds. “People who laugh in response to a conflict tend to shift from convergent thinking where they can see only one solution, to divergent thinking where multiple ideas are considered.”
Ha + ha = aha! “Humor is a key ingredient in creative thinking,” Kerr says. “It helps people play with ideas, lower their internal critic, and see things in new ways.” Humor and creativity are both about looking at your challenges in novel ways and about making new connections you’ve never thought about before, he adds.
Taylor agrees. She says humor “establishes a fertile environment for innovation because people are more inspired when they are relaxed.”
It helps build trust. “You can build trust with the effective use of humor because humor often reveals the authentic person lurking under the professional mask,” Kerr says.
He explains that numerous studies suggest that people who share a healthy, positive sense of humor tend be more likable and are viewed as being more trustworthy. “Humor is also viewed as sign of intelligence,” he adds. “All of these characteristics, as well as the fact that humor is a fabulous icebreaker and can tear down walls, can help people build relationships in the workplace, and especially these days, relationships are critical to success.”
It boosts morale. Humor boosts morale and retention while reducing turnover because employees look forward to coming to work, Taylor says. “Employees like to work for and with others who have a sense of humor. We all prefer to have fun at work. It should not feel like an indentured servitude environment.”
People who use humor tend to be more approachable. The more approachable you are, especially as a leader, the more honest and open people around you will be, Kerr says. “And the more honest and open people tend to be, the more successful and innovative teams tend to be.”
Humor can allow your company to stand out. “It can help companies stand out and go beyond with their customer service, garnering them a huge loyal following,” he says. If you want to stand out from the pack, using humor with your service is an effective way to do that.
It can increase productivity. “Humor creates an upbeat atmosphere that encourages interaction, brainstorming of new ideas, and a feeling that there are few risks in thinking outside the box. All that leads to greater productivity,” Taylor explains.
“It also stands to reason that if you’re in a more jovial atmosphere, you’ll have more passion for what you do. Your work ethic will increase, and your enthusiasm will likely be contagious. It’s a win-win for you and your employer.”