Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Recently, I led a workshop on motivation for a group of about 10 people at a small manufacturing company. They came from different shifts and different positions: non supervisory, supervisory, and executive. Before we got started, they were already laughing.They teased the executive about his quirks, and he good-naturedly laughed along. They laughed about pleasant things and about how they’d dealt with unpleasant things. As I expected based on their laughter, it was great workshop with lots of discussion, sharing, questioning, and ideas for tailoring the ideas to match their own environment.
If I wanted one indicator of the health of a workplace, it would be how much people laugh. In addition to smoke detectors, how great would it be if we could (invent) and install laugh-o-meters so we can celebrate laughter and realize when we are starting to take ourselves too seriously?
Lack of humor at work is often attributable to fear. Fearful people don’t laugh. They also tend not to create, share, or willingly back each other up . They don’t pass along information that others need.
Of course all laughter isn’t created equal. It’s no fun to be the butt of a joke that everybody else feels is funny but you feel is humiliating. When some people are laughing and others aren’t, it can be a sign of a status fault line – only people in the in-crowd understand the joke. Humor based on language subtleties sometimes doesn’t translate well, so humor may totally evade non-native speakers.
But when everyone is laughing together in a warm, friendly way, humor can be magical.
What makes humor so effective?
First, humor is often based on the characteristics that make people unique. That awareness of the specific ways that people are different is the first step towards organizing work to use differences well.
Second, I can attest to the fact that being roasted is a great way to feel that people are really looking at you, really paying attention. At my Quarter Century party, my manager went through a presentation of fictitious inventions she had collected from many people who had worked with me. This celebrated my status as Master Inventor and made fun of my quirks:
- Invention of the algorithm which provides accurate pattern matching between your Myers Briggs profile and your bathroom stall selection. (This one was based on a hilarious moment in a panel I moderated.)
- Method and Apparatus for Pain Avoidance While Sitting and Trying to Manage Extremely Long Hair (This was from someone who’d seen me disentangle myself from many chairs.)
- System and Method for Conning Colleagues into Participating in Psychological Research (submitted by one of the people who contributed VIA and MBTI data to my MAPP capstone study),
- System and Method for Billiard Table and Electric Train Set Avoidance in Applications of Ballroom Dancing (My husband and I dance around the edges of our large playroom.)
- System and method for ensuring you have the last word in all technical conversations.
Third, humor is closely associated with positive emotion, which broadens people’s viewpoints and makes them more tolerant and inclusive.
Fourth, laughter feels good. It’s fun. Fluegge demonstrates in her dissertation that ““individuals having fun at work were also more likely to be more engaged in their work, and consequently exhibit greater creative performance. Overall, the findings of this study provide evidence to suggest that fun at work directly and indirectly affects job performance.”
Fifth, a really good laugh creates a shared memory that strengthens the bonds among people. That laugh that followed the INTJ lady saying she always used the same stall in the bathroom and the ESTP lady responding that she always picked different ones is a memory I share with more than 150 people.Sixth, humor takes some of the sting out of stress and trouble. When studying the association between humor and burnout, Talbot and Lumden found “results suggest that when humor is used as a coping mechanism there is a reduction in depersonalization and an increased sense of personal accomplishment.” Fry and colleagues found "the female executives who reported a greater potential for humor and optimism displayed a somewhat stronger resistance to burnout than did the female executives characterized by more perfectionist tendencies."
Laughing at Myself
I find that being able to laugh regularly at myself creates a great buffer. Hawkins defined self-enhancing humor as "having a humorous outlook on life, showing amusement to incongruities in life" and found that it was "was supported by this study as an effective coping mechanism."
So if you hear relaxed laughter in your workplace, rejoice! If you are considering a new workplace, try to hang around and observe whether people laugh often during the course of a day. If laughter is low, Lefcourt suggests the following as good starting points for increasing capacity for humor: "encouragement of flexible thinking, of learning to generate multiple responses to singular stimuli, and lessening the fear of rejection for attempts aat being comical or provoking laughter," (p. 628). I am not good at telling jokes or intentionally being funny, but my laughs are a joyful noise that sends the laugh-o-meter up.
Fluegge, E. R. (2009). Who put the fun in functional? Fun at work and its effects on job performance. Dissertation, University of Florida. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences Vol 69(7-A), 2009, pp. 2781. (I’ve only read the abstract so far.)
Fry, P. S. (1995). Perfectionism, humor, and optimism as moderators of health outcomes and determinants of coping styles of women executives. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 121(2) , 211-245.
Hawkins, D. A. (2009). Comparing the use of humor to other coping mechanisms in relation to Maslach’s theory of burnout. Dissertation, University of Florida. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences Vol 69(7-A), 2009, pp. 2543. (I’ve read only the abstract so far.)
Lefcourt, H. M. (2005). Humor. In Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology , pp. 619-631. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ryan, K. & Oestreich, D. (1998). Driving Fear Out of the Workplace: Creating the High-Trust, High-Performance Organization (The Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series) (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
From the abstract: High performance, creativity and trust is impossible when people are afraid to tell the truth. With this in mind, this new edition shows managers and executives how to eliminate fear, encourage top employee performance, and increase corporate competitiveness. … They tell us why fearful workers lose pride and motivation, increase defensive behavior, seek revenge, and hide failure. … The authors believe that supporting certain behaviors–respect, honest, constructive feedback, and humor, for instance–is a start.
Talbot, A. & Lumden, D. B. (2000). On the association between humor and burnout. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 13(4) , 419-428.
Barometer 1 courtesy of Thomas Claveirole.
Long hair courtesy of Edward Britton
Hold All My Calls courtesy of furryscaly
Laughing group courtesy of Sulynn. Sulynn is in the center, Kathryn right behind her, and Senia on the right.