In the NBC hit TV series The Office, the character Michael Scott (a bumbling, self-absorbed, rather obtuse branch manager) was a walking poster child for “how not to [insert anything here]” at work. A clear foil to Scott, the character Jim Halpert was an easygoing, affable, fun-loving prankster. Jim’s well-timed one-liners, his unyielding love of pranking his stiff-necked desk neighbor, and his ability to rally his officemates into a game or joke gave new life to an otherwise boring-seeming work environment, gave it an atmosphere of joviality.
Both characters aimed to bring humor to the office. Only one was actually successful. But truly, their goals were in the right place. A recent survey by Robert Half International shows that nearly 80% of CEOs believe that a sense of humor plays a large role in how well an employee fits in. A different survey by the Bell Leadership Institute shows that humor is one of the most important tools for a good leader. Not only that, but the Bell study also shows that the “most effective leaders use humor to spark people’s enthusiasm…boost productivity…and bring teams together.” Clearly, creating an atmosphere that includes humor rubs off on everyone around: people can be more productive, morale can be higher, and there can be more collaboration and trust.
But, as shown by the fictional Michael Scott and Jim Halpert, there are right and wrong ways to bring levity to the workplace. To start, avoid the standard no-no’s such as racist, ethnic, sexist/gender-based, and sexual-orientation-based jokes, as well as other taboos that might be specific to your business. Also, know your audience and their level of receptivity. If you get verbal or nonverbal hints that your jokes aren’t welcome or timely, don’t crack ’em.
Perhaps even more important is that you shouldn’t use humor in negative ways. If you’re making jokes at someone else’s expense, using farce to break that person down, you’re going about it wrong. If you’re joking around to distract others from their work, you’re doing your business a disservice. If you’re using humor solely to build yourself up (honestly examine your intent behind the joke), your wit might eventually fall flat for your audience.
Instead, use humor to take the sting from a stressful situation or to improve morale. Bring in comedy to put employees at ease. Use your wit to draw a team together. And remember that there are ways to make things light without always being ready with a one-liner or a wisecrack. If office guidelines allow, wear wacky socks or a silly patterned tie or scarf. Make ideation meetings fun with creativity-boosting props like kazoos, modeling clay, stickers, or other children’s toys. And be ready to poke fun at yourself—you can earn trust and collaboration points by showing that you can laugh at your own foibles.
In the big picture, a humor-filled workplace can reduce stress, bond teams, and keep employees engaged. Plus it just makes a workday more fun. If you can use humor in your office to do so much good, why wouldn’t you?