Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 41;   October 13, 2021:

The Risks of Humor at Work

by

Humor at work can be useful for strengthening relationships, making connections, and defusing tension. And it can be risky, too. Some risks: irrelevance to the here and now, leaving out the funny, or ambiguous sarcasm. Read this post for five more risks.
Henny Youngman in 1957

Henny Youngman (1906-1998) in a 1957 publicity photo. He was a comedian of stage and screen, known as "the king of the one-liners" because most of his jokes were very, very short. His most famous line is perhaps, "Take my wife…please." Although his humor has little potential for direct application in the workplace, students of his brevity will gain much. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Humor at work can make work fun. It can defuse tense situations, prevent difficult situations from becoming more difficult, and clarify points that might otherwise have remained murky. Being uproariously funny on a consistent basis does take some skill. Fortunately, consistent uproariosity isn't important at work. Two things do matter. First, it's important to be funny enough often enough to keep your team out of trouble. And second, it's important not to hurt anyone or set the team back in its path to making progress together.

And that second item is the focus of this post — managing the risks of using humor at work. Here are some guidelines for avoiding trouble when using humor at work.

Connect to the here and now
Prepared humorous stories ("canned jokes") might be funny over the dinner table or along the sidelines of a children's soccer game. But they're of little value at work because they so rarely connect with the present situation. Moreover, they often sound practiced.
Be funny
Perhaps the most critical attribute of any attempt at humor at work is that the lines delivered must actually be funny. And the people who have final say as to the humor value of the delivered lines are the people who hear them.
Simple is better than complicated
The more It's important to be funny enough often
enough to keep your team out of trouble.
And it's also important not to hurt anyone
or send the team deeper into toxic conflict.
complicated the humor, the more likely it is to fall flat. Especially in tense situations, people at work are most likely focused on work. A humorous comment might take many by surprise. They're unprepared to process the humor. Make it easy for them.
Puns are high risk
Even when people are getting along well, with stress levels low, puns can be irritating. Delivering a pun in the hope of defusing a tense situation is unwise. Oddly, there are entire Web sites devoted to providing puns to use at work. Don't go there.
Unalterable personal attributes aren't funny
Using someone's personal attribute as a predicate for a humorous comment is extremely risky, especially if the attribute is undesirable. The target of the comment almost certainly will take offense at the commenter and anyone who finds the comment funny. Such comments risk being divisive.
Ridiculing a serious situation isn't funny
In serious situations, some people realize they might be held accountable for the problem. Others expect that although they themselves might not be accountable, they might pay a high price personally — harm to their careers or a requirement to work long hours to deal with the problem. Neither set of folks is likely to see much humor in the situation. Indeed, they might interpret humorous comments as comments that devalue the pain they are about to endure.
Sarcasm is frequently misunderstood
To be effective, a sarcastic comment must be delivered drily — as if it were a straight comment. And therein lies the risk. Some might interpret the comment literally, which is usually the opposite of the intended meaning. This risk is elevated when the audience is comprised of people hailing from multiple cultures.
Humor that elevates your own status can seem self-serving
If the supposedly humorous comment is an example of indirect backdoor bragging, it's more likely to exacerbate tensions than it is to relieve them. And backdoor bragging is just one way to make trouble by elevating one's own status. Another: delivering humor that's humorous only if one has specialized knowledge or access to restricted information.

The human mind is endlessly creative. I'm certain that there are dozens more ways to make trouble with humor. If you notice one not mentioned here, add it to your list of tactics to avoid — and please send the example to me. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Ineffectual Leaders  Next Issue

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