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Why do some managers get no response to their humor?

Here’s a common humor in the workplace question I received from a long-time e-zine subscriber: I have a question for you as it relates to humor.  Most always I feel like I get away with humor…mostly it’s silly, punny, inoffensive, although I also get and give some good laughs poking at some people…but always comes off pretty well.  However, there are times when I see other folks (usually upper management) attempt to use humor and they don’t get a good response.  My sense is that it comes from a lack of trust or respect for the speaker.  Could this be why? Our department has been in a bit of unrest as we’ve struggled with massive budget cuts, staff losing positions, etc over the last few years.  Not very funny stuff, but I think there should always be room for staff to breathe, laugh and look at possibilities.  What does your research say about the speaker’s and the audience’s need for trust or understanding?  I’d like to help both the speaker and the audience in some covert way, because I don’t want ANY of us to lose our sense of humor.  I believe smiles and laughs and graciousness is what brings us together.

Signed Seriously Challenged


Dear Seriously Challenged:

GREAT question, and without knowing the specifics you may be bang on with your assessment about there being a lack of trust.  There are many studies in the International Journal of Humor Research that talk about how humor is definitely a great bonding tool for teams in the workplace, even when it does cross over into teasing/kidding type of humor.  In fact, teasing/ribbing kind of humor is often used as a guide for people to know when they have “made it” into a certain group.

And there is a huge connection between trust and humor, that likely works both ways.  When people see leaders demonstrating a truly authentic style of humor consistently, and not in any forced way, then people tend to trust them more because it helps them come across as being more authentic, and more human.  Hence the popularity of the Jon Stewart show and why politicians like to appear on comedy shows.

But if there isn’t a foundation of trust, if people are suspicious of the speaker’s motives then for sure the humor may not work or, even worse, could backfire if it is viewed cynically as merely being window dressing or not real or if people think the speaker isn’t taking the deeper issues at work seriously enough. So I think the two, trust and humor, definitely need to go hand in hand just as humor and likability go hand in hand.  Humor can make the speaker seem more likable; but if the speaker isn’t somewhat likable to begin with, it’s probably far, far harder to get a laugh.

In studies looking at professors use of humor in university classrooms, the use of humor tended to improve the trust and respect of the professor,  but only when the humor was a)  inoffensive, and b) relevant to the topic at hand.

And of course there are dozens of reasons why someone’s attempt at humor may misfire, from the relationship that’s been established to even the time of day or setting.  And then there’s even the reverse phenomenon that I wrote about a few months back, about how many employees will “fake laugh” at a leader’s attempt at humor as a way of sucking up to them!

In my presentations I always talk about the chicken and egg thing with humor in the workplace: that humor is both a tool that can create a better workplace, but it’s also the end result of working in a respectful, positive, inspiring work environment where people feel good about themselves and each other.  You can’t just tell people to smile and have a good attitude, we need to give people a reason to smile and have a good attitude.

In other words, humor can also be a pretty good indicator as to how relaxed and positive people feel, and I think that’s the more important part of the relationship.  So even if you have a manager that is introverted (as many can be) that isn’t naturally inclined to being funny, it doesn’t matter as much as making sure they aren’t inadvertently squashing other employee’s use of humor, and inadvertently creating an overly serious, oppressive work environment.

Michael Kerr,  December, 2011, environment.

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