In my years of preaching the importance of humor in the workplace, I’ve been met with resistance because just as so much can go right, so much can go wrong. The goal of using humor is to uplift, add value, break the tension, release stress, and bring people together, but if it isn’t done right, humor can have the opposite effect. Here are three outcomes of using humor in the workplace that you want to avoid:
If you’re going through the loss of a loved one or you’ve been working hard all day and need respite, humor provides a welcome distraction and a jolt of perspective. If you can feel the tension rising between people, sometimes a well-timed one-liner or acknowledgement of incongruity can release that tension instantly. Humor is a fantastic tool when the goal is added perspective or tension release. If you’re using humor as a distraction or if you’re doing it all. the. time… you may be distracting yourself from the bigger picture. Humor is a means to an end, not the end itself, so if you’re noticing an incongruity — say there’s a blatant disregard for diversity — cracking a joke about it and not doing anything can be just as toxic as being openly bigoted. Note the problem, laugh about the fact that it’s a problem and your current actions aren’t solving it, then do something about it by trying something new.
Incorporating humor as a cornerstone of your culture may not connect with all audiences — and that’s okay. When people would rather work in serious mode, the last thing you want to do is form a roving band of jesters poking fun at those who won’t join in, or shutting off those who aren’t as funny. People are socially awkward, so if someone who was nervous about contributing humor fears being laughed at instead of laughed with, he or she will feel like an outsider. Even if their quip isn’t funny, laugh politely and avoid the desire to talk about that person once they’re out of earshot. Start from a place of appreciation, because even if that other person without a funny bone in their body feels welcome, your inclusivity will lead to them eventually surprising you with a perspective that has everyone rolling.
If humor is at the expense of someone, or it appears as an exclusive club to your less-funny employees, the benefits of it are nullified. Though witty takedowns and scathing comebacks are commonplace in comedy clubs, “comedian owns heckler” videos, and Comedy Central Roasts, chances are good your employees aren’t professional comedians, so replicating this style of humor is often toxic at work.
Humor at work is meant to be a means-to-an-end, inclusive, unifying, and uplifting. If the results are anything other than these three things, it’s time to course correct.
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