Blog presented by the Organizational Communication Research Center.
A guy spots a sign outside of a house that reads “Talking Dog for Sale.”
Intrigued, he knocks on the door and asks the owner if he can see the dog.
“So, what have you done with your life?” he asks the dog.
“I’ve led a very full life,” says the dog. “I’ve lived in the Alps rescuing avalanche victims. I was in the army for eight years. And now I spend my days reading to the residents of a local retirement home.”
The guy is flabbergasted. He turns and asks the dog’s owner, “Why on earth would you want to get rid of such an incredible dog like that?”
The owner looks at the potential buyer with disgust and replies, “Because he’s a damn liar! He never did any of that!” (Gini, 2017, xii)
I don’t know about you, but this joke from Al Gini’s book “The Importance of Being Funny” made me laugh. Although we often underestimate humor, it is without any doubt an important human quality and one of the crucial aspects of our daily lives. Humor, which broadly speaking refers to a person’s propensity to amuse others (Martin, 2001), has been thought to improve our mood and life satisfaction (Celso, Ebener, & Burkhead, 2003). Previous research has found that 92 percent of married couples believe that humor contributes significantly to their marriages (Ziv, 1988). Other researchers have shown that humor can potentially mitigate relational conflicts (Bippus, 2003) and play a positive role in maintaining relationships (Haas & Stafford, 2005). Stepping away from romantic relationships, education literature has suggested that a teacher’s sense of humor helps put students at ease (Baid & Lambert, 2010) and has the potential to increase retention of information and comprehension (Powell & Andresen, 1985).
What about humor at the workplace? How do employees feel about this topic? In a chapter of the book titled “The Psychology of Humor at Work: A Psychological Perspective”, Christopher Robert refers to a study he conducted with Scott Seyrek in which he asked 100 workers to describe what humor at work meant for them. I have included below some of the quotes shared by Robert (2017):
Humor is essential to my sanity at work. I always tell people, if you can´t find humor in a situation, then life just isn’t worth living.
The importance of humor cannot be denied.
If not for the humor between us (co-workers), I would not return to this job.
Humor is essential to a well-rounded life.
Humor in the workplace is vital (pp. 1-2).
I believe these employees are correct. Humor in the workplace can certainly have an important effect on the well-being of an organization. Previous research has found that employee humor is associated with health outcomes such as coping effectiveness, decreased stress and burnout, as well as work-related outcomes such as job satisfaction, performance, work withdrawal and group cohesion (Mesmer-Magnus, Glew, & Viswesvaran, 2012). Supervisor humor is also associated with the previously mentioned work-related outcomes as well with perceptions of leader effectiveness such as performance and follower approval (Mesmer-Magnus et al., 2012).
Based on all of this previous information, it may appear that humor at the workplace is a hands-down win-win situation. This is not the case. Humor can often be perceived as disrespectful and annoying, and can lead to a wide range of negative outcomes (Malone, 1980; Pundt & Hermann, 2015). The way people decide to use humor can be partially explained by their humor styles. In 2003, Martin, Puhlik-Doris, Gray, and Weir, published a Humor Style Questionnaire (HSQ) that divides humor into four styles: affiliative (positive and other-directed), self-enhancing (positive and self-directed), aggressive (negative and other-directed), and self-defeating (negative and self-directed).
Those who score high on affiliative humor say funny things, engage in funny stories to bring people together, reduce tension, and put others at ease. They enhance their “relationships with others in a way that is relatively benign and self-accepting” (Martin et al., 2003, p. 52). Individuals with self-enhancing humor tend to have a humorous view of life despite adversities. They will usually notice the funny side of an event and will likely use humor as a coping mechanism (Martin et al., 2003). Aggressive humor is viewed as a negative form of humor that seeks to make fun of others. Those who utilize this type of humor show low concern for the feelings their words or actions induce in others (Howland & Simpson, 2014). Finally, people with self-defeating humor call attention to personal flaws and tend to say funny things at their own expense.
As the relationship between humor styles and employee outcomes is underexplored, I have recently been conducting a study that examines the linkages between supervisor humor styles, supervisor authenticity, employee-organization relationships, and employee advocacy. More specifically, the study is focused on the two humor styles that reflect the interpersonal aspect of humor: affiliative and aggressive. Although the purpose of this post is not to discuss the results of the study, it is important to highlight the opposing effects that these two humor styles have on important employee perceptions and outcomes. For example, while affiliative humor had a positive relationship with employee perceptions of supervisor authenticity, aggressive humor had a negative relationship with these perceptions.
Supervisors and leaders need to understand that the way they communicate through humor may either have positive or negative consequences on employees. At the same time, PR practitioners have a role to play in guiding and advising their leaders on how to use humor in a way that will generate positive results.
Patrick Thelen is a Ph.D. student and graduate assistant at the University of Florida and a research editor for the Institute for Public Relations’ Organizational Communication Research Center. Follow him on Twitter @patrick_thelen.
Baid, H., & Lambert, N. (2010). Enjoyable learning: The role of humor, games, and fun activities in nursing and midwifery education. Nurse Education Today, 30(6), 548-552. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2009.11.007
Bippus, A. M. (2003). Humor Motives, Qualities, and Reactions in Recalled Conflict Episodes. Western Journal Of Communication, 67(4), 413-426.
Celso, B. G., Ebener, D. J. & Burkhead, E. J. (2003). Humor coping, health status, and life satisfaction among older adults residing in assisted living facilities. Aging Mental Health, 7(6), 438-445.
Gini, A. (2017). The importance of being funny: Why we need more jokes in our lives. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
Haas, S. M., & Stafford, L. (2005). Maintenance behaviors in same-sex and marital relationships: A matched sample comparison. The Journal of Family Communication, 5(1), 43–60. doi:10.1177=1461444810363910
Howland, M., & Simpson, J. A. (2014). Attachment orientations and reactivity to humor in a social support context. Journal Of Social & Personal Relationships, 31(1), 114-137. doi:10.1177/0265407513488016
Mesmer-Magnus, J., Glew, D. J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2012). A meta-analysis of positivehumor in the workplace. Journal Of Managerial Psychology, 27(2), 155-190. doi:10.1108/02683941211199554
Powell, J. P., & Andresen, L. W. (1985). Humor and teaching in higher education.
Studies in Higher Education, 10(1), 79-90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075078512331378726
Robert, C. (2017). Humor at work. Often experienced, seldom studied. In C. Robert (Eds.), The Psychology of Humor at Work: A Psychological Perspective (pp. 1-9), New York, NY: Routledge.
Ziv, A. (1988). Humor’s role in married life. Humor, 1(3), 223–230. doi:0.1080=00224545.1989.9712084