Three Rules for Making Good Leadership a Laughing Matter

There are ways to have fun in the workplace without offending or alienating others. Here’s a look at three ways to make humor a positive workplace tool.

“Humor doesn’t come with a user’s guide.” That’s the slogan of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor (AATH)—and possibly a warning for people who are unsure of how to skillfully deploy humor at work. But there are plenty of reasons to do so: It signals trust, generates innovation, and builds team unity.

Of course, there is a way to do humor wrong in the workplace, as you never want to come off as rude, ignorant, or insensitive. So how do you use humor in the workplace to generate joy without being inappropriate?

Consider these guidelines to make humor a positive workplace tool.

Stick to the Benign

Laughing at yourself can endear you to employees, poking fun at a stressful project may help employees relieve tension, and playful banter between employees can bring teams together. But putting others down, making people uncomfortable, or making light of sensitive subjects is obviously an issue.

Since humor is so subjective, it may seem hard to distinguish between a light jab and a rude remark. Before letting a joke fly in the workplace, ask yourself whether the comment could be considered benign. The benign violation theory (BVT), developed by psychologist Peter McGraw, explores the duality of humor by arguing that for a situation to be funny, it has to be both a “violation” of accepted norms and benign (not directly threatening), and that these two criteria must occur simultaneously.

In other words, your humor shouldn’t be rooted in aggression toward others, name-calling, bullying, bigotry, intimidation, and so forth. Instead, it should be about “stimulating a playful discovery, expression, or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations,” as the AATH puts it.

Consider Context—and Power Dynamics

It’s important to note that BVT has its limitations, especially in a work setting. A leader who issues “benign violations” through humor can inadvertently communicate that other violations are acceptable, such as insulting coworkers, wrote Kurt Greenbaum in The Source, the news publication of Washington University in St. Louis.

“[Leaders] should be more mindful about their humor. Your role, your status—all of your actions—will send out very strong signals about what behaviors are acceptable,” researcher Zhenyu Liao told The Source.

As a leader, you should use humor to lift people up, not bring them down; laugh with, not at. Researchers Leo Kant and Elisabeth Norman suggest incorporating additional elements into your BVT “review” to help ensure your humor is appropriate:

A distinction between the joke teller and joke listener. Consider your colleagues and employees: They all have their own backgrounds and perspectives, which means that what you may find funny might not resonate with the people you’re talking with—or, worse, might offend them.

The role of power differences. Your direct reports may be closer emotionally and socially to certain current events, issues, and life experiences. For example, as a leader, it may come off as inconsiderate to make light of inflation, which is hitting entry-level workers particularly hard.

Stay Positive

The workplace probably isn’t the best place to pull out your edgiest material. Positive, good-natured humor can bring teams together, even in the face of negativity.

“The type of humor matters,” Brad Bitterly and Alison Wood Brooks wrote in Harvard Business Review. “One study by Andrea Samson (University of Fribourg) and James Gross (Stanford) found that positive, good-natured humor in response to bad news made people feel better, but negative, dark, or mean-spirited jokes made them feel worse.”

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Michael Hickey

By Michael Hickey

Michael Hickey is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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