Sunday, June 25, 2017 | ePaper

Have a laugh at work, get surprised by the payoff

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Art Markman :
Successful jokes can make people appear more competent and can increase their status. I like humour. I try to be funny, and sometimes succeed.  Thankfully, my podcast has a great producer, and so the final edits make me look a lot funnier than I really am (often by splicing together individual words to create something that is much like a ransom note).
Is it good to try to be funny in work contexts? People certainly tell a lot of jokes at work. I remember growing up that my father (an accountant) and his friends (mostly other professionals and business people) would trade jokes that they had heard in the workplace. Does telling jokes help people to be more successful?
This question was explored in a paper in the March 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Bradford Bitterly, Alison Brooks, and Maurice Schweitzer.
They demonstrate that successful humour does increase people's status in organisations. Successful humour is both funny and appropriate for the work context.
In order to do their studies, they first did a survey to verify that humour is common in the workplace. It is. Then, they pilot tested a number of jokes to ensure that they were funny. They also found some jokes that were appropriate for the workplace and others that were not.
A second set of studies explored whether the joke had to succeed to work. In this case, participants read vignettes about a job interview.  The job candidate was asked a question and either answered it seriously or with a joke. The interviewer either laughed at the joke (a successful joke) or did not (an unsuccessful joke).
The interviewee's status was higher and they were rated as more confident when they told a successful joke than when they were serious or told an unsuccessful joke. Interestingly, the interviewee was rated as more confident when they told a joke than when they didn't, even when the joke was unsuccessful.
This finding suggests that successful jokes increase status, but unsuccessful ones don't. So far, this would suggest that humour is a good thing.  At worst, it doesn't hurt and at least increases people's sense of your confident.
However, a final set of studies looked at inappropriate jokes. For example, in one vignette, participants read about another job interview. The interviewer asked: "Are you looking for a challenging position." Some participants read that the job candidate gave a serious response ("Yes, I am a hard worker and like challenges.") Some participants read that the job candidate made an inappropriate joke.
Some participants read that the interviewer laughed at the joke while others read that the interviewer did not laugh.
In this case, the unsuccessful inappropriate joke decreased people's judgments of the candidate's status and competence quite a bit and even the successful inappropriate joke decreased people's beliefs about the candidate's competence.  Again, people rated the joke teller as having higher confidence than the candidate who gave a serious response.
The experimenters repeated this study with different jokes and somewhat different measures and obtained the same pattern of findings.
These results suggest that when people hear someone tell a joke in a work setting, it increases their sense of the joke teller's confidence. However, unsuccessful jokes and inappropriate jokes decrease people's sense of the competence of the individual.  When people view a colleague as confident, but not very competent, that ultimately hurts the colleague's status.
This work demonstrates that humour at work is a double-edged sword.  Successful jokes can make people appear more competent and can increase their status.  But, unsuccessful jokes-and particularly inappropriate jokes-can actually hurt one's position in the workplace.  So, it is important to use humour carefully.

(Art Markman, Ph.D., is Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. -Psychology Today)

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