As we all know, humor is an important part of social interaction in our everyday lives. While we might often think of humor as being something practiced by professional comedians on television or in movies, the truth is that virtually every human being engages in humor to one degree or another on an almost daily basis. And this applies to the workplace as much is anyplace else in our lives. People use humor at work for any number of important reasons, such as relieving tension, encouraging improved performance, establishing a leadership position or simply to make others feel at ease. Over the decades, many scholars and experts have studied this topic in detail. They have attempted to both categorize and quantify the factors involved. The following paper will examine the use of humor in the workplace, considering the different types of humor that can be used and how these different types can be employed most effectively by both employees and managers.
While there is no denying that business is a serious activity, it's also important to recognize that a bit of humor can help to relieve the stress in a work environment and make work more enjoyable for managers and employees. Any workgroup use driven by spoken and unspoken rules regarding human interaction, which is why understanding and employing humor within organizations can help managers effectively work with their personnel, and vice versa. The use of organizational humor offers a number of advantages, and could be used to motivate staff, effectively communicate and minimize discord and disagreement. But it's also important to note that humor comes in many different styles and aspects. In fact, there are technical aspects to humor that can be applied by managers and other leaders within an organization. Humor can be used for more than simply creating a sense of camaraderie and familiarity, since it can also provide a set of tools management can selectively use for various purposes. The following essay examines how managers and organizations can use humor for a variety of purposes, including stress reduction, leadership enhancement, improved group cohesiveness and improved communication.
How Humor Is Currently Used
Humor is a fundamental aspect of human interactions, as can be seen in its use in various social organizations, such as fraternities, police departments and even Indian tribes (Kennedy, 1970, p. 117). It is also widely used in business organizations, such as Southwest Airlines, Sun Microsystems and Ben & Jerry's (Castelli, 1990 p. 39). The former CEO of the Brady Corporation, Katherine Hudson, suggested that humor can be employed by companies to “foster esprit de corps. . .spark innovation. . .increase the likelihood that unpleasant tasks will be accomplished. . .[and] relieve stress” (Hudson, 2001, p. 53).
The current business environment can certainly be described as highly stressful, in part due to increasing globalization and competition. This has caused companies to focus more specifically on creativity and innovation, as well as cost-cutting and efficiency. One side effect of this is that turnover is a major problem in most businesses because employees have little commitment to those businesses. Furthermore, while diversity is increasing in the workplace and can be a significant creative resource, it can also result in workplace conflict and animosity if it is not managed properly. Given this, it can be quite challenging for managers to institute or maintain a healthy culture in an organization.
One approach to solving these problems is to use humor to encourage healthy social interaction in the workplace. Humor can help to increase employee satisfaction (Decker, 1987, p. 222), build workplace cohesion (Meyer, 1997, p 207), increase productivity (Avolio et al., 1999, p. 225) and encourage creativity (Brotherton, 1996, p. 77). Research is also demonstrated that humor can create a sense of camaraderie (Vaill, 1989, p. 25), promote the organization's internal culture (Clouse & Spurgeon, 1995, p. 23) and help leaders be more effective (Decker & Rotondo, 2001, p. 455).
Defining Workplace Humor
Humor has been described as “any communicative instance which is perceived as humorous” (Martineau, 1972, p. 120), and it is comprised of both verbal and nonverbal communications designed to create an “positive cognitive or affective response from listeners” (Crawford, 1994, p. 54). In keeping with the above definitions, it could be said that humor within an organization relates to amusing communications that induce positive feelings and thinking within the organization as a whole and the individuals working for that organization. This definition is sufficiently broad to take into account humor which one individual might find humorous and another would not.
Known as affiliative humor, one type of humor is designed to attract others and focuses on enhancing and expanding social interaction. Affiliative humor can include inside jokes, harmless practical jokes and funny stories. It's important to note that individuals using this type of humor are generally viewed as nonthreatening and are liked by those around them (Vaillant, 1977, p. 23). By using this type of positive and nonthreatening humor, managers can help to build relationships and reduce interpersonal stress in the office place (Martin et al., 2003, p. 72). When an individual is using affiliative humor, it can be assumed that his or her intent is to help bring people together.
Another type of humor is called self enhancing. This is used by individuals who take a lighthearted view of life and are not greatly disturbed by any problems they face. Self enhancing humor serves as a coping mechanism, allowing individuals to deal with stress in a positive way. When this kind of humor is used within an organization, the intention of the initiator seems to be to enhance his or her own image as compared with others within the organization. Self enhancing humor focuses more on the individual than does affiliative humor (Martin et al., 2003, p. 54).
Aggressive humor is a very negative and often counterproductive approach to humor in the workplace. It is often used to control others in the workplace by making them fearful of frequent ridicule (Janes & Olsen, 2000, p. 479). Through the use of disparaging words, aggressive humor victimizes and belittles an individual (Zillman, 1983, p. 91). Aggressive humor is associated with "superiority theory," which assumes that individuals use such humor to make themselves feel better at the expense of another individual in order to obtain a higher status or rank within the workplace. Most experts agree that aggressive humor can be seen as a type of neurotic behavior (Martin et al., 2003, p. 61).
A less aggressive form of aggressive behavior is known as mild aggressive behavior. This can actually serve a positive purpose in the workplace. For instance, a number of researchers have observed that mild ridicule can help to encourage conformist behaviors among employees, which in turn assists with team cohesion (Janes & Olsen, 2000, p. 482). Frequently manifested as teasing or satire, such mild aggressive humor can be used to reprimand employees in a humorous and overall positive way (Meyer, 1997, p. 201). Moreover, it avoids any conflict or unpleasantness resulting from the reprimand since the message is delivered using a playful tone (Kahn, 1989, p. 63).
People will sometimes use self-defeating humor in order to keep ridicule upon themselves. This is done both to amuse others and to seek acceptance from the group (Martin et al., 2003, p. 56). Moreover, it seems likely that those who use this type of humor in a limited way have the goal of minimizing their status within the organization so that they can seem more approachable and less intimidating.
Humor As Communication
Because humor is a common aspect of communication throughout society, it plays a significant role when studying organizations. When used properly, humor is a part of communication encourages a more open environment and encourages positive attitudes toward listening to others and accepting the message they are relating (Greatbatch & Clark, 2002, p. 18). There is a good deal of evidence from scholarly literature related to advertising that tends to support the idea that humor can help to get the attention of others and can result in superior comprehension and a greater emotional connection (Weinberger & Gulas, 1992, p. 47). We often see actors in commercials make use of self enhancing humor to create a bond with the audience. Marketers can accomplish a similar connection with the audience using mild self-defeating humor to momentarily reduce the speaker status and relieve tension (Chang & Gruner, 1981, p. 420). When speaking to members of our group, a speaker can use affiliative humor to focus on similarities and shared humor. All of these approaches can help to enhance communication in the workplace.
A unique aspect of humor is that it can be used in an ambiguous way that will permit the speaker to criticize someone without any resulting animosity (Grugulis, 2002, p. 183). This is because such humorous ambiguity reduces or eliminates the instinctive resistance people feel when they are being criticized. In addition, sharing a humorous moment is socially incompatible with being offended. As a consequence, it helps to improve communication and make it more honest. For instance, a humorous story about miscommunication can in turn enhance communications in the workplace (Meyer, 1997, p. 199). When stories like this are related, they on the one hand make light of humorous incidents involving miscommunications. On the other hand, they convey to the listener in a humorous way that future communications should be clear and unambiguous.
Reduction of Stress
Stress can induce dysfunction in the workplace, and there is significant empirical evidence that humor can be used to reduce such stress. Furthermore, when one makes a joke about a stress producing situation, it is empowering and creates a sense that one has control over that situation, which in turn helps to reduce anxiety and stress (Smith et al., 1971, p. 245). Essentially, joking about stress minimizes its significance and makes it less disturbing. When people feel a greater sense of control in the situation, they are also less likely to be afraid of it, but stress will be reduced (Dixon, 1980, p. 108). Affiliative humor can also be used in a group situation to reduce tension caused by stressful events because it creates an atmosphere in which all of the people in the situation feel a sense of sharing. In other words, it generates a "we're all in this together" mindset. This is particularly useful in minimizing stress (Martineau, 1972, p. 190).
Clearly, humor can be a valuable tool for leaders in an organization. It allows them to establish and maintain hierarchical relationships, which can be particularly valuable in the workplace. It's also helpful when individuals are trying to secure power in a constructive way. Those who occupy high status positions have been demonstrated to joke around more than those in lower status positions. More than this, they are more effective at making others laugh (Robinson & Smith-Lovin, 2001, p. 127). Studies have also shown that when executives or managers in the company make jokes, they are more likely to choose someone lower in the organization to be the focus of that joke. Obviously, they would be unlikely to make a public joke at their superior's expense (Coser, 1959, p. 177). One of the privileges in a power relationship is to use humor to drive home one's power over subordinates. For instance, marking or teasing lower-level employees is shown to encourage them to comply with expected behaviors (Dwyer, 1991, p. 17). This is often seen in the military, with drill sergeants using ridicule to reinforce the fact that they have complete control over the new recruits. In short, humor in the workplace is generally the privilege of those with authority (Goffman, 1961, p. 59), and such individuals can use humor to reinforce their status and power (Smeltzer & Leap, 1988, p. 301).
Leaders attempting to use humor in this way often use aggressive humor, since it is most effective in reinforcing the hierarchy through the demonstration of power over subordinates. In contrast, individuals often use self enhancing humor when speaking to a higher status individual so that they may ingratiate themselves to their superiors. This allows the leader to make him or herself more appealing and to acquire more power from the superiors.
As previously suggested, self-defeating humor serves the purpose of reducing the speaker status and allowing the speaker does seem more approachable and human. Obviously though, in a situation where an individual's credibility is essential, this type of humor has a negative effect. This is why leaders should avoid self-defeating humor went others of the same status for hire or present, since it would make these higher status individuals less likely to take the speaker seriously (Coser, 1959, p. 175). Such a man outcome can be extremely damaging to a leader's position of authority and his or her long-term career.
In conclusion, while it is certainly true that funny anecdotes and jokes can be best delivered by those individuals who have effective skills at delivering humorous content, humorous interaction in the workplace does not have to be restricted to such individuals. As pointed out above, organizational humor comes in many types and can be practiced by virtually anyone in the organization. However, it is important for an individual to ensure that he or she is using the appropriate type of humor in a given situation and based on their position within the organization. As has been made clear, humor can have many specific effects within an organization, such as improving morale, relieving stress, encouraging greater efforts and establishing leadership position in the hierarchy. Humor can be either spontaneous or preplanned (such as in practical jokes). Of course, it should be carefully thought out in either case so that the humor involved is not too extreme or aggressive. Otherwise humor can result in negative consequences in workplace relationships and interactions.
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