Some bosses act as though they're allergic to humor, bristling when employees joke around in the office and fretting over the line between humor and harassment. But Chris Robert, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia's Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business, says joking around on the job can actually have a positive effect on productivity and employee retention. Robert, whose findings have been published as a chapter in a recent edition of the journal Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, spoke about his findings to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Why did you decide to do an academic study on workplace humor?
I've always appreciated how humor is an important part of the day-to-day work life, and I've always been interested and intrigued by how humor works. I've also done research on the subject of cross-cultural management styles and noticed how some humor works well in our culture, but not in other places.
Have you found that humor is definitely culturally specific?
Sure, somewhat. But on the other hand you typically hear things like, "Don't use humor in international business settings, it'll fall flat or you'll offend someone." But my experience is that that's not the worst thing in the world. And the upside is really positive: Almost nothing makes you more comfortable than sharing a laugh about something universal, like kids. So sometimes humor works exceedingly well across cultures to make people feel better about each other and about doing business together.
I approached the topic of humor initially from the cross-cultural angle, but then I decided to survey the literature and found that there wasn't much out there in terms of empirical work on humor. There are lots of armchair theorizers, but not many good studies. So a business doctoral student, Wan Yan, and I looked at the fields of anthropology, communications, and sociology to see what might inform what we'd expect to see in business organizations.
And what did you find?
We found pretty good theory and evidence suggesting that humor at the individual level is important. The use of humor, and the ability to produce and make humor, is associated with intelligence and creativity, two things highly valued in workplaces. More important, the link between humor and positive emotions seems strong, which is intuitive, and there's also a strong correlation between positive emotions and workplace performance.
So are you saying that a funny employee can help promote a happy, productive workplace?
No one has really studied humor as an important part of employee performance directly, but we do know that positive affect in the workplace increases individual performance. And humor is one of the things associated with a positive affect, which increases not only productivity, but also the ability to communicate well with the boss, co-workers, and customers. It also enhances the degree to which you feel bonded, cohesive, and part of the group in the workplace.
That's where employee retention comes into it. If you have positive emotions about your job, you're less likely to quit. And maybe part of that is because of the fun you're having in the break room. You might get a better job offer, but it will take more to draw you away when you like where you work and you like the people you work with.
It seems as if we often get negative reactions to humor from those armchair theorizers or from the legal perspective. Why do you think that is?
Humor enables people to make comments that they might not otherwise make. If you can wrap something up in humor and say, "Oh, I'm just kidding around," you might be able to say something offensive that you wouldn't say without the humor. So I think often people blame humor in general when someone's making an offensive comment within humor. I think of humor as the medium, not the message.
If someone makes a sexually charged comment, but they use humor to do it, should we blame humor or should we blame the person's intentions? We don't want to shoot the messenger.
In the same sense, doesn't humor also give employees the freedom to criticize or complain about their jobs?
Sure. If the business owner or manager is someone who doesn't respond well to direct challenges from employees, they might find a way to criticize indirectly with humor. In that case, I'd advise the business owner to take the message seriously. The person making the joke might be challenging you, which could be a problem, or you might be getting a subtle communication from one employee that other employees also feel. If an employee makes a joke about a supervisor, other people probably agree with that joke. Humor producers know that other people are listening to their joke and they're more likely to make it if they think the others will appreciate it.
In that sense, humor can be used effectively by the business owner to understand how employees are thinking. It could create an opportunity for you to address a complaint or criticism that you wouldn't hear about otherwise.
How did your study find that humor relates to workplace creativity?
The primary theory about humor, which is well accepted, is that it stems from incongruity. In other words, we find jokes or comments funny because they are linking two things together—perhaps through a punch line—that you wouldn't normally link together, or that shouldn't go together. Essentially, that's what creativity is, too: Putting things together in a unique way, like using the Internet for something people wouldn't have thought of before.
It's likely that some of the same neural processes enable both humor and creativity, so those two things kind of go hand in hand. A number of studies show that a funny person is also likely to be a very creative person.
How do your findings translate to the hiring decisions that small business owners have to make?
That's an interesting issue, and in fact we're working on a paper about that right now. Should you select the funny guy for a job? I don't necessarily think you want to select the class clown, someone who's constantly joking and has to be the center of attention all the time. That could be too much for a workplace, it could get distracting for the other employees, and any boss would probably have valid worries about that kind of person. But if you can get some more subtle indicators in an interview that someone has a good sense of humor—say, they appreciate humor or they find things funny—that might be someone you want to have around. The other thing is that humor is viral. When someone's laughing, it's kind of contagious and it can spread a positive general benefit to the workplace.