Go on, have a laugh! We spend many hours promoting the use of clear, concise communications in the workplace. So it may seem strange for us to suggest that, along with your active writing style, brutal editing and close attention to detail, a little humour is not a bad thing.
It depends on who, where and when
This is not an invitation to pepper your emails with jokes, clever word-plays or the dreaded emojis of social media. Serious correspondence on business matters should remain humour-free zones, so let’s look at where a display of wit might be appropriate and how to use it.
Know your audience
People who make a living from making us laugh – scriptwriters, comedians, talk show hosts – can consistently do so because they have detailed knowledge of their audiences. Television networks alone spend millions of dollars a year closely monitoring their viewers’ tastes and preferences. If they get it wrong and viewers switch channels, advertising revenue suffers.
Before you try to raise a laugh, give careful consideration to your audience and make sure you understand what they find amusing. Obviously, you would take an entirely different approach to a closed room filled with truck drivers than you would to a dinner with company shareholders.
Choose your moment for humour
The occasions where humour might be used effectively are too numerous to cover in any depth, but here are a few:
- An email to employees or clients about a party or celebration
- An internal announcement of high interest but low importance
- In the preamble to a client presentation
- At a company get together
- Dining out with clients, suppliers or other stakeholders
Make your humour appropriate and tasteful
- Match your joke or witty remark to the tastes and sensibilities of your audience.
- Emails live for ever. Don’t write anything that could cause you embarrassment later.
- Be cautious when giving a talk or telling a joke to what you consider a safe audience, one that allows you to be more daring. Somebody may innocently record the moment on their cell phone.
- Take into account any subjects which may be sensitive to your audience. Being too lighthearted in your treatment of them may be taken as a sign of disrespect.
- If you’re in a leadership position, set an example to those who follow you regarding the standards you wish to endure in your organization.
What the boffins say
Researching a subject of this kind is difficult because the definition of humour or the degree to which we find something funny varies greatly between individuals and there are no accurate ways to make a precise measurement. However, undaunted, the University of Missouri had a crack at finding out what people think about humour at work.
The focus of the study was on whether humour is a good tool for improving morale in the team. The answer, as is so often the case in this kind of research, is yes and no.
Bosses who are popular with their subordinates can successfully use humour to maintain this good relationship, as long as they avoid making fun of the usual sexual and racial stereotypes. They can even use what the research calls ‘negative humour’ such as sarcasm. (‘Positive humour’ is described as being inclusive and tasteful.)
Those who are perceived as poor leaders, however, have a more difficult time: neither positive nor negative humour seems to work in their case. The researchers concluded they would be better off fixing their relationships through clear communication, fair treatment and providing useful feedback.