Laugh Track: How Humor Can Enhance Employee Productivity

They say laughter is the best medicine, but did you also know it can enhance creativity and reduce stress in the workplace?
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
November 10, 2014

"Humor," Edward De Bono says, "is by far the most significant dimension of the human brain." It gets us to think asymmetrically, enhances creativity and energizes us. Studies show that humor in the workplace can boost employee productivity, and even enhance performance. Laughter is also one of the best stress management tools. As the Mayo Clinic reports, laughter increases the release of feel-good chemicals, reduces tension and helps us connect with others.

Management consultant Tom Peters has long advocated the importance of humor for encouraging a team spirit and as a constructive way of dealing with mistakes in the workplace. In his book, The Pursuit of Wow! Every Person's Guide to Topsy-Turvy Times, Peters exhorts us to have "a collegial, supportive, yeasty, zany, laughter-filled environment where folks support one another and politics is as absent as it can be in a human (i.e. imperfect) enterprise."

But humor in the workplace is no laughing matter—it often works and should be a part of a company's culture plan. How can you harness the power of humor to bring out the best in your people? 

1. Lead With a Smile

As a business owner, you set the tone in your company. People often watch their boss's expressions to see which way the wind is blowing. Lighten up your approach with employees—humor helps put people at ease by generating trust and making you more approachable. A sense of humor is a desirable quality in most leaders; it's an important part of getting along with others and getting things done.

But that doesn't mean you have to go around the office cracking jokes. Just being aware of your habitual facial expressions, smiling at people, not approaching all issues with the same grim intensity, and not being heavy-handed when people make the inevitable mistake can go a long way toward lightening the mood and fostering well-being in your office. Humor is a key tool for strong leaders. It's worth paying attention to this.

2. Understand Your Style of Humor

Psychologist Rod Martin developed a Humor Styles Questionnaire that measures four ways people express humor:

1. Affiliative. This is a highly positive, non-hostile, non-competitive type of humor used to reduce social tensions, smooth relationships and promote cohesion in a group. It involves spontaneous jokes and witty banter that we can safely laugh at.
2. Aggressive. This type of humor establishes dominance in social situations. It involves sarcasm, teasing or disparaging others.
3. Self-enhancing. This type of humor serves as a proactive way to cope with stress. It's related to taking things lightly, being amused by various events in our lives and having a generally humorous outlook on things.
4. Self-defeating. This is self-deprecating humor; it's about being open to, or encouraging, jokes at our own expense.

Studies show that a leader's self-enhancing humor has a positive effect on employees. As well, a little self-deprecating humor is usually a good way to lighten the mood in many situations.

3. Introduce Some Fun Initiatives

There's a myriad of no- or low-cost initiatives you can implement that can inject some fun into your business. Here are a few to consider (choose the ones that best fit your culture and would be well-received by staff):

  • Inspire employees to make use of The Joking Computer to generate new jokes for your next company event.
  • Check out the monthly Harvard Business Review Cartoon Caption Contest. Invite employees to take part. Here's the one for the November 2014 issue.
  • Take a few minutes at the start of a staff meeting while everyone's grabbing coffee to include a brief ice breaker. For example, have everyone join in solving a brain game such as Word Puzzle Wednesday.
  • Poke some good-natured fun at the motivational industry by bringing in some humorous products such as demotivating posters or "The glass is half-empty. Deal with it." glasses.
  • Set up a "Take Your Kids to Work Day," "Take Your Dog to Work Day" or "Bring Your Parents to Work Day" (considered the new "millenial workplace perk").
  • Ask all employees who wish to participate to bring a picture of themselves as a child. Post the photos in a central place—maybe in the coffee or break room—and have a contest to see who can come up with the greatest number of matches. Watch as employees huddle around the board and have fun guessing. Is that kid with the sand bucket really the CFO?
  • Get the team to take an improv class together. Continue the fun at work by trying these online improv games at a monthly lunch session.
  • Check out Andrew Tarvin's "101 Ways to Create Humor at Work," and use a few ideas that appeal to you. For example, have team members do some fun branding by creating a free logo and theme music for some of their projects. These can be used in update presentations and emails.
  • Bring in a Laughter Yoga instructor, and offer this as a perk for your staff (forced laughter in a group often turns into real laughter). It's a fun, inexpensive way to get a runner's high, and it can be done anywhere in the office. 
  • Have your employees submit their favorite family recipe. Compile them in a company recipe book, and provide each employee with a copy. You could even have a potluck where each employee makes and brings in their favorite dish.
  • Start a book drive to get books to those who need them. This can involve the employee's entire family as they all gather books they no longer need. 
  • Set up an online silent auction where employees can donate an item or a service, such as Photoshop lessons, dancing lessons or coaching sessions. Use Charity Navigator or a similar service to give employees a chance to vote on a charity of their choice. Alternatively, have your staff rally around a charity cause such as connecting homeless families to a better future.
  •  Have a service create fun caricatures to delight your team members.

4. Respect Comic Diversity

Any initiatives to introduce fun in the workplace need to take into account the different personalities in the office. Not every employee is comfortable partaking in fun activities at work. What appeals to the sales department may not work for the IT folks. So don't force people to join in organized frivolity if it's not a good fit for them. Respect their wishes, and give them the autonomy to opt out—whether that's the Christmas party, the annual picnic or the hallway golf tournament.

5. Include Humor in Your Ads

Some studies have shown that ads with humor are at least 25 percent more effective than those without—humor increases the odds that potential customers will take action. That's because funny ads attract our attention and are more likely to be memorable. Almost everyone enjoys watching funny ads, such as this Berlitz language ad. This can even be incorporated as part of your brand—a workplace that values humor.

6. Hire a Funny Motivational Speaker

For your next company event, hire a funny motivational speaker to fire up the troops. Here are some examples:

You can also source speakers at American Program Bureau, The Sweeney Agency, Premiere Speakers Bureau or the National Speakers Association.

It's important to keep in mind that humor and fun in the workplace aren't a panacea for poor working conditions, unfair wages or mediocre management. But humor can turn a good place into a great place to work. It's worth the effort. As Stanford University MBA Candidate Eric Tsytsylin put it in this insightful video, "We are in the midst of a laughter drought in business." It's time to take note and rectify this.

Humor can be your greatest ally in boosting morale and promoting optimism. Infusing a spirit of laughter in your workplace is a smart business strategy.

What have you done to raise your employees' spirit at work? Share with us in the comments below.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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