The Role Of Laughter & Humor In The Workplace

Because I work for The Second City, a lot of people assume all I do at my job is laugh.  All the time.  That every single day is spent doubled over, tears in my eyes, gasping to catch my breath, while in the throws of uncontrollable laughter.  And while that is mostly true, the work I do is still complex, sometimes extremely difficult and something that I take very seriously. So, if I’m telling you that not every day in my world is a laugh riot, can you imagine how serious it must be in companies that aren’t in the business of making comedy?  Pretty serious, I’m guessing.  But do you have to be serious all the time to be serious about the work you do? (Spoiler, for those who don’t have time to read this whole article: No.  No, you don’t.)

“Why So Serious?  Understanding The Power of Humor in the Workplace”

After many of the improv workshops I teach to companies and organizations, I’ll often hear something like “Man I wish I worked with you guys.  You have so much fun!”  Which, again is true, but what I’m hearing from that comment is “I could never enjoy my workplace as much as you do.”  I try to remind them that the levity and laughter they just experienced was with their co-workers.  The people they just spent three hours giggling and creating with are the same people that will be on the 10AM conference call tomorrow regarding the Q4 projections for the [insert fancy industry jargon here].  

So, why do people assume you can’t laugh at work?  There are some major myths regarding humor in the workplace and they often impede our ability to utilize humor as a very useful tool at our disposal.  I’m sure there are many more, but here are the big ones I’ve noticed over the years:

Myth #1:  

In order to take my job seriously, I must take every single aspect of it seriously. Not true! You can have a sense of humor and still get the job done.  In many ways it might help you be better at getting the job done.

Myth #2:  

My co-workers/boss won’t respect me as much if I show my sense of humor.  Not true! Being able to approach difficult or stressful situations with a dose of levity will have people clamoring to be on your team.

Myth #3: 

If I know a few good jokes, my co-workers will think I’m funny.  Nope again! We’re talking about an “attitude”, an “approach”, a “vibe” you give off – not your ability to recite a knock-knock joke you heard over the weekend.  (Shout out to knock-knock jokes that have their time and place. Due respect.)

Myth #4: 

Being funny at work means making fun of other people.  Oh my goodness, no! The best work places know how to use humor to bring people together, to unite them in a common understanding, to help blow off steam, or to re-energize – and that is never accomplished when someone is the butt of the joke.

Myth #5: 

My job is [insert very serious industry here], there’s no way I can use humor at work.  Again, not true!  Sometimes when things are at their most critical, most serious, most dire, the ability to rely on humor is a game changer.  Again, we’re not talking about humor at the expense of productivity or creating an inclusive space – but instead a way to come together and gain fresh perspective.

One of the most exciting things about the workshops we teach is that people get to see their bosses and co-workers in a new light.  They learn that the assumptions they had about these people they spend all this time with aren’t always accurate.  Turns out Bob from Accounting took some risks and made them laugh.  Who knew?

In that moment, I don’t think they are responding to the fact that Bob was funny (even though he most likely was!) – but instead, it’s the fact that they caught a glimpse of his humanness.  

“When we use humor we convey our ability to be vulnerable, individual, and authentic.” 

Embracing humor and the ability to laugh at oneself is a pretty amazing super power.  When used effectively, it communicates to your co-workers that you are approachable, that you know you are fallible and that even though you take the work seriously, you don’t take yourself too seriously.  And who doesn’t want to work with someone like that?

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