Knock Knock. Who’s there? Laughter in the workplace (2022)

Claire Finch & Elizabeth McCourt

Knock Knock. Who’s there? Laughter in the workplace

There’s no getting around the fact that the last few years have been challenging and with a lot less in-person interactions. When we sat down to write the outline of our recent Learning Lab Conversation for KDVI, we both brought to the table the weight of the conversations we’d been having with clients, teams, and with our own friends and family. There has been an abundance of anxiety due to the uncertainty, and in some cases we haven’t even been able to notice what it is that’s different, because we’ve been operating on overdrive.


But a couple of moments in late 2021 made us focus on a particular aspect that we’d been missing: laughing together. We noticed an advert for McDonalds in the UK, which depicted all sorts of groups of people laughing together and we started laughing too. Pure human connection, a good kind of contagion, with no words necessary.


The second was when one of us joined a local co-working space and heard people spontaneously, joyfully laughing. Proper ‘from-the-belly’ laughing, totally in the moment, completely carefree. The sound of pure joy in the air was heart-warming, but also quite emotional, as it sparked the realisation and recognition of what we had been missing. 


We reminisced about all the times we’d worked together over the years. Yes, getting the job done and taking things seriously, but also, well, having a giggle and a lot of fun along the way. We realised that we’d both missed out on the laughter and connection than comes from interacting with groups of people through work.


The best medicine


So why does it feel so good to laugh? It certainly has an emotional and physical effect on all of us. If you dive into the origins of laughter, it becomes clear that wherever you are in the world, laughter plays an important cultural role . While it’s not possible to point to one moment in history and say ‘laughter began at this point!’, it is likely that it developed from playfulness.


As humans started to live in more complex social settings, we needed ways to interact with each other and build connections. And, by laughing with each other or finding things funny, it helped bring us closer together, to build cooperative alliance and ultimately, survive. 


In the English language, there are countless phrases that include laughter. A barrel of laughs. He who laughs last laughs longest. Laughing all the way to the bank. But the one we like best is ‘laughter is the best medicine’. Perhaps that’s because it’s fun, free, and easy to use. Indeed, laughing comes with a whole host of benefits. 


We like to think of it both metaphorically and physically as taking a breath. You literally take in more oxygen when you laugh, which has a variety of positive impacts on the body. It can strengthen your immune system, boost your mood, and protect you from stress.


It can also fill us with hope. Research has shown it reduces stress and eases tension. It releases dopamine which helps us to relax. It increases endorphins which can help with pain relief. Nothing works faster or more dependably than laughter at lifting your spirits.


In groups, it can strengthen relationships. It can bring teams and groups of people closer together, and can be used to defuse conflict. Jung recognised the therapeutic value of laughter and humour. He recognised that injecting a well-timed joke, or bringing a light-hearted moment into his work with groups, was a powerful way to shift the energy.


Now that we know all of this, what role, if any does laughter have in the workplace? And what benefits might there be not just to individuals or groups, but also to organisations as a whole?


Laughter in the workplace


A 2015 Wharton study concluded that a sense of humour, when deftly and appropriately applied in the workplace, can elevate your status and the perception of your competence. It can also boost engagement and spur collaboration and creativity. There were clear and obvious benefits to utilising laughter and humour within the workplace. Does this mean we should all immediately crack open our joke books at our desks?


If only it were that simple.


Let’s not forget, sometimes work can be serious. Sometimes it must be serious. Humour in the workplace requires us to choose our moments. We were both able to quickly, easily and embarrassingly recall our own experiences of trying humour at the wrong time. 


A surgeon mid-surgery might not be the moment for a new knock-knock gag. 

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Humour also straddles the line of acceptability. You might not have the same sense of humour as your colleagues, and in a global organisation with a variety of languages and cultures, you have to be highly aware of when you invite humour into the workplace, and the type of humour you employ. The line between offensive and funny can be a thin one.


If you are anything like us, then all sorts of hilarious things pop into your brain during a workday. Some of them probably should not be said out loud in an office. 


Some of them seem like great ideas as you formulate them in your head, but you feel unsure, and the mere indication that you thought maybe you should hold back means you should hold back. 


That’s your gut saying it’s not going to land. 




Just to make things even stickier (what’s brown and sticky? A stick, of course!), if you use too much humour in the workplace, the same Wharton study concluded that you risk becoming the ‘class clown,’ and this then signals low competence and ‘the combined effect of high confidence and low competence harms status.’ 


Oh. Shouldn’t have used the stick gag.


We find 'The Humor Styles Questionnaire' by Martin et al. (2003) to be a useful guide. Steer clear of self-defeating and aggressive humour where you put down yourself or others, and instead focus on self-enhancing humour (being able to laugh at yourself and find the funny side in a good-natured way when something bad happens to you) and affiliative humour, where the goal is to bring people together around something they all share. Think of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld that zoom in on the comedy in everyday life.

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If the humour you have in mind makes it through those filters, and its light and might change the energy in the room, then why not go for it?


During our Learning Lab Conversation, our participants were fans of laughter in the workplace. Some even said they would leave an organisation if the culture didn’t allow for it. Ultimately, work is the place we spend most of our days, and for our own mental and emotional wellbeing, we need to feel safe smiling, laughing and enjoying humour in our workplaces.


As leaders, we have the opportunity to set the cultural environment. We like to think our role isn’t to create the laughter, but to ‘stop stopping it’, to just get out of its way.  It isn’t about imposing fun. When fun and laughter are forced on others it rarely works. 


To reap the benefits of laughter in the workplace, find ways for people to be able to deploy humour in a positive, inclusive way, by building a culture of trust, psychological safety and authenticity, where laughter can live.


Our Learning Lab Conversations are a space for reflection, shared experience and discovery about leadership in the face of extreme uncertainty and disruption, in order to unlock the energy and imagination required to navigate these choppy waters effectively. To find out about our next series, contact [email protected] or signup to our mailing list.

KDVI, 2022

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