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The business case for humor at the workplace. Is the Middle East open to laughs?

Work is not a funny endeavor. But experts say levity can help us achieve goals and solve problems

The business case for humor at the workplace. Is the Middle East open to laughs?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

There’s always room for some laughs — anywhere. Even at the workplace. Did you not give annoying things a funny name, like blamestorming, while discussing why a deadline was missed and who should take responsibility while sitting in the meeting room with your colleagues? Or are you thinking your office could be a little more fun if your co-workers packaged information with wit?

Experts say humor is essential at work. It makes us more creative, and resourceful.

LinkedIn, which has been thought of as a professional social network, is not all serious anymore. It finally rolled out Funny emoji, offering light-hearted fun in a professional context. A quick fun fact: Linkedin’s Funny reaction was one of the top requests they received from members, based on their Chief Product Officer’s newsletter, because people agree that “humor is indeed a serious business.”

A large-scale global study by Gallup shows that adults fall off a humor cliff; they stop smiling and laughing as much around age 23, right around the time they enter the workforce. “Whether we’re hard-nosed about profits or earnestly attempting to solve big problems, we tend to think humor is inappropriate for the workplace. But it can be one of our most powerful tools to achieve these goals,” says Jennifer Aaker, a behavioral scientist and a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas teach a Stanford business school class called Humor: Serious Business.

LAUGHTER RELEASES FEEL-GOOD HORMONES

“When we use humor in conversation at work, we build stronger connections — more quickly. One study found that when people laugh before a serious conversation, they are more candid—disclosing on average 30% more personal information,” adds Aaker. “Shared laughter quickens the path to vulnerability and shortens the path to connection.” 

The biological mechanism for this is simple. Laughter releases feel-good hormones — endorphins and dopamine — while reducing our brain’s secretion of the stress hormone cortisol.

“My job is stressful, and I find it highly distressing,” says Sayed Ahmed, a sales manager at a retail company in Dubai. “I’ve realized that I can relieve the pressures and remotivate myself by sharing my feelings with colleagues and clients through jokes.”

Humor sells, says Bagdonas. One study found that customers are willing to pay 18% more when a salesperson ends their pitch on a light-hearted or funny note.

HUMOR REBUILDS CONNECTIONS

Research also shows that banter can enhance the culture of support within a team and accelerate the achievement of important goals. A study at James Cook University found that humorous banter helps individuals support each other better and ultimately achieve their goals. In another study, humor was shown to contribute to psychological safety and increase productivity at work. 

“Humor rebuilds the connections many of us feel we may have lost during the pandemic – coffee breaks during the day, happy hours with colleagues, or the passing catch-ups in the elevator. It can defuse tension during stressful meetings and projects, particularly when the stakes are high,” says Aaker.

So what’s funny? It has to be the right humor. Race, ethnicity, and religion are out, as are jokes that put people down.

The Middle East has a huge number of expatriate workers, and most offices have a multicultural environment. And in such a setting, keeping an open mind and respecting differences is important. Stereotyping by race has to be avoided.

But at the end of the day, Adam Zuckerman, product leader at Willis Towers Watson, a global advisory that helps companies improve performance by enhancing the employee experience, says, “People are people, and funny is funny, so the fact that you may be working with people from different countries or cultures doesn’t matter.”

“In fact, humor is one of the best ways to connect with people across cultural and national boundaries because humor is universal.” 

Everybody has frustrations at work when they’re disappointed or annoyed and fail to reach their goals. Everybody feels overwhelmed and overworked from time to time. “These are universal human reactions to work, and seeing their lighter side, recognizing their commonality, and laughing about them can be a great way to cope with and move past these challenges,” adds Zuckerman.

LAUGH WITH A PURPOSE

Great use of humor at work is to make people laugh with a purpose, not just to laugh, and never to laugh at someone else’s expense, according to Zuckerman. “Examples of making people laugh with a purpose are using humor to relieve pressure, to help people think creatively about a problem or consider a different perspective, or to help someone save face. Ridiculing an individual or a group of people is never a good idea and usually isn’t funny.”

You joke about innocent mix-ups in the office and everyday stuff about families. Experts say once you’re looking at the world through a comedy eye, there’s humor in what happens to you at the workplace – creating in-jokes about what you do every day builds up a sense of solidarity.

A KEY TO GOOD LEADERSHIP

Many leaders, especially introverts, don’t know how to safely encourage the use of more humor at work. But humor, says Bagdonas, is the key to good leadership and success: “We may not consciously think of humor as a leadership trait, but research reveals that we value it deeply. Leaders with a sense of humor are seen as 27% more motivating and admired, their employees are 15% more engaged, and their teams are more than twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge.” 

Aaker and Bagdonas have spent years studying the power of humor – watching hours of standup, interviewing comedians, and teaching it at Stanford University. They’ve written a book, Humour, Seriously, on their findings.

“Humor is an antidote to arrogance,” adds Bagdonas. “As a leader, bringing more humor and humanity to work helps break down the status barrier that develops as you rise in status.”

Meanwhile, there are workplaces with employees who tone down their humor, often with the desire to be taken more seriously, Zuckerman adds. “It may be easier for more senior employees to use humor because they’ve established a reputation for performance and see less risk in it distorting how they’re viewed.”

“But it’s a mistake to worry about any downsides of thoughtful humor. One of the things we learned during the pandemic, as we all peered into each other’s living rooms and saw each other’s kids, pets, and casual clothes, is that we are all full human beings at work,” he says. 

WHAT’S HOLDING BACK COMPANIES FROM BEING FUN?

Innovative, successful companies recognize that and build cultures to support that humanity. And there’s nothing more human than humor.

Companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines have used a positive, fun culture to retain employees. 

What’s holding more companies back from following the fun route?

“We surveyed more than 700 people across various industries and levels about what holds them back from using humor at work. A few key themes emerged, most rooted in myths that need debunking,” says Aaker. “For example, a large portion of our respondents believed that humor has no place amid serious work — or worse, that it stands in the way of our success. We worry about harming our credibility and not being taken seriously. Which makes sense; with greater status comes greater scrutiny, and with greater scrutiny comes a pressure to signal more professionalism and ‘seriousness’ to stakeholders, customers, colleagues, and employees.”

But according to hundreds of executive leaders (in surveys conducted by Robert Half International and Hodge-Cronin & Associates), 98% reported preferring employees with a sense of humor, while 84% believed employees with a sense of humor do better work.

“Another thing holding people back: the risks,” says Bagdonas. “Indeed, humor can be a double-edged sword. A well-intentioned joke can land the wrong way and backfire, harming the relationship and your reputation. When you are tempted to use humor at work, the cardinal rule is: don’t ask, ‘will this make me sound funny?’ Instead, ask, ‘How will this make other people feel?’ Remember: your goal isn’t to get a laugh; it’s to make the room feel lighter and more at ease.”

One of the most powerful things about humor is its speed. Genuine laughter is involuntary – if something is truly funny, you can’t help but laugh. “And when you share a laugh with someone, you cement an immediate bond. You’re essentially saying, ‘we think alike,’ and that forms a connection that can open all kinds of great dialogue and collaboration,” says Zuckerman.

What’s most important is making small shifts in our behavior and mindset to bring more humanity to work – when we do, our humor will follow. “This is about more than telling jokes; it’s about looking at the world differently. When we live on the precipice of a smile, we shift how we interact with the world — and, in turn, how it interacts back,” says Aaker.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More

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