Joking your way to the top: why laughter is the best medicine for stressed executives

4 January 2016

It may be precisely through humour that employees are able to do their work, argues Dr Jane Lê.

Office workers laughing at a joke

Workplaces in January are not generally very funny places to be, but new research has found humour can be just the thing to get an organisation off on the right foot.

The ever-present need to respond to multiple stakeholders, operate in multiple markets and offer multiple products and services, means modern firms are often chasing multiple goals, which are not always easy to reconcile.

Leaders of many organisations are under pressure to balance their investment in existing markets and products with investment in market development and product innovation. Given budget restraints, this creates tough choices. Responding to constantly evolving regulatory requirements can also create a lot of tension and difficulty.

Yet, in a recent two-year study focusing on a large telecommunications organisation dealing with stresses caused by major regulatory changes, we found people were really good-humoured. They were always joking, making light of the difficult work they had to do.

Wanting to better understand this dynamic, we delved deeper, looking specifically at why people were joking so much and what it accomplished.

Interestingly, we found humour was not just a way for employees to relieve tension and make work more enjoyable through moments of playfulness, it was also actually functional. It directly addressed the tensions that people experienced.

Humour was a way for people to discuss challenging issues without being too confrontational or difficult. This was important, and not just because it enabled frank discussion of issues that were otherwise difficult to raise. We found it also could lead to confirmation of a particular view on an issue or, indeed, refutation of that view. Further, it led people to suggest a series of potential responses, which, again, could be either confirmed and embedded or deemed inappropriate, prompting a search for alternatives.

In the telecommunications firm we worked with, we found people joked about all sorts of things in the context of dealing with regulatory goals which had been put in place to ensure that competitors were on equal footing and suffered no commercial disadvantage.

They joked about their long working hours, their inability to be fair and competitive at the same time, insufficient resources to complete multiple projects, knock-on implications of decisions at different levels or by different segments of the organisation, audit processes taking valuable time away from “real” deliveries, and many other matters. It’s clear humour is used to deal with a wide range of issues that employees come across every day and that they have to work through.

We realised that humour was absolutely commonplace. It wasn’t something special that happened, but rather a natural response that people enacted when dealing with difficult situations in the workplace. When facing tension, people use humour to reinforce existing perceptions and responses or to reorient themselves and come up with new responses.

Since workplaces are interactive places, where people come together to discuss and work through issues, humour is very important. It has a key role in helping staff work through complexity and find constructive ways forward. It avoids lengthy delays created by circular discussion and avoids costly stalemates. Humour can be an effective way of dealing with tensions caused by organisational change, contradictions and competing interests in the workplace.

People are often quick to dismiss humour at work as “playtime”, something that distracts people from focusing on really getting the work done. Our research suggests this could be a flawed conclusion – it may be precisely through humour that employees are able to do their work.

Managers should pay more attention to humour as an everyday response to tension. Next time you hear someone joking and laughing, think carefully about why they are doing that and what they are achieving.

This research was jointly conducted with Professor Paula Jarzabkowski at London’s Cass Business School.

Jane K Lê is a Senior Lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. This article was first published in the Conversation.