How to Use Humor To Improve Your Company Culture
What if you could do just one thing for your employees that would make them happier, more connected, and less stressed — without spending a dime?
Authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas firmly believe using more humor in the workplace is the secret to improving company culture and gaining a competitive edge.
And they’ve done the research to back it up — from diving deep into academic studies to visiting comedy clubs and dissecting jokes with writers from Saturday Night Live.
In their book, Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is A Secret Weapon In Business And In Life, the pair make a solid business case for cracking jokes more often.
If the thought of pulling off a stand-up routine for your next company meeting feels as uncomfortable as pulling on a llama costume, don’t worry. It’s not about performing, but about being authentic as a leader and setting the right tone.
The benefits of humor in the workplace
Neuroscientists have found laughter actually changes our brain chemistry, releasing a cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. Those are the same hormones we release when we eat something delicious, cuddle with someone we love, and power through an intense workout (though we’re not usually doing all three at the same time).
Using humor in the workplace builds stronger bonds between employees and reduces cortisol, which lowers stress.
It can even improve employees’ creativity and cognition.
The Baltimore Memory Study measured participants’ cortisol levels and then tested their skills in key areas. Researchers found participants with lower cortisol levels scored better in six areas, including language, processing speed, hand-eye coordination, executive functioning, verbal memory, and visual memory.
The authors also cite a 15-year Norwegian study that found both men and women with a strong sense of humor lived longer.
The stress-reducing effects of humor in the workplace can also increase feelings of psychological safety, which is crucial at the time of high anxiety, and make employees more resilient in the face of serious challenges.
How to improve company culture by cultivating humor
Aaker and Bagdonas offer practical steps company leaders can take to bring more laughter into the workday even if they don’t think of themselves as funny. It starts by signaling to employees that it’s OK not to take themselves too seriously and extends to looking for creative ways to celebrate individuality, company-wide success, and even failure.
Look for moments of surprise
When it comes to using humor in the workplace, you’re better off if you’re not trying to be funny. Instead of planning an elaborate stunt, try to stay in the moment and react to what naturally happens.
If you’re responding to a team member during a company video call and realize you’re still on mute, you could say their brilliant comment left you speechless.
If you’re making a big announcement and you land on the wrong slide or the curtain fails to drop on cue, you can tell everyone you just wanted to keep them in suspense a little longer.
Allowing your employees to weigh in offers more opportunities for these moments of spontaneous humor.
Akers and Bagdonas use the example of Google’s company-wide “TGIF” meetings, which always ended with a 30-minute session where employees could ask the leadership team anything. This helped create a company culture of honesty and transparency while giving employees permission to take the conversation off-script.
Of course, this format isn’t always productive, so it’s important to read the room and consider what is most appropriate as circumstances change.
(Google CEO Sundar Pichai has since changed these weekly meetings to shorter, monthly ones focused on product strategy.)
Improv comedy is built on the rule of “Yes, and”, where you agree with your scene partner’s statement and add something to it to move the story forward.
You can use the same principle in the workplace, whether your “stage” is a conference room or a virtual meeting. Sometimes it helps to give employees the opportunity to laugh at your expense, too. In the book, Akers and Bagdonas use Aaron Easterly, the CEO of Rover, to illustrate this. At a company party, employees played a version of “Two Truths and a Lie” where they had to guess which embarrassing revelations about him were true.
This helped employees get to know him better as a person with flaws just like anyone else.
Celebrate employees’ individuality
In a company culture rooted in humor, laughter comes from all levels. Akers and Bagdonas identified three types of employees who each bring their own unique style of humor in the workplace.
Culture carriers are natural leaders and rising stars who also have a good sense of humor.
“To activate culture carriers, welcome them into the fray, sharing challenges and opportunities that they can help address from the bottom up,” Akers and Bagdonas write. “Treat them like peers, start organizational concerns, and allow them to solve key problems with you — adding their own flavor of play.”
Instigators are the employees who enjoy breaking the rules.
They are the people most likely to start an impromptu office open-mic session in the middle of the afternoon or dress up like the boss for Halloween. While they can sometimes become a distraction, allowing them the freedom to be themselves reminds other employees they don’t have to take themselves so seriously.
Finally, hidden gems are hard-working individuals who don’t necessarily seek the spotlight but provide unexpected opportunities for laughter.
You can help these individuals shine by highlighting their little-known talents — for instance, inviting them to play the banjo in the few minutes before a meeting starts.
Create fun company rituals
Hiroki Asai, the former head of Apple’s Creative Design Studio, compares creating your company culture to hanging family pictures on your wall.
“You take very deliberate steps to celebrate people, moments, and places you’ve gone, you frame those moments and you hang them on the wall,” he says in the book.
As a leader, you can find ways to showcase what makes your company unique and celebrate your wins (and even losses) in memorable ways.
Maintaining a strong company culture in a hybrid work environment
Finding more opportunities to use humor in the workplace can have a significant positive impact on your company culture. However, it’s important to think about it in the larger context of a changing business climate and new employee expectations.
The way your employees work together today probably looks very different than it did before the pandemic. You’ve likely added new employees who have never met anyone in person before, which means they haven’t had the same opportunities to get to know their colleagues in a setting that’s less structured than a Zoom meeting. Employees may also be feeling more pressure to demonstrate their value and show they’re being productive when you don’t see them every day.
This might make them less likely to show their authentic selves with the same spontaneity they did when they worked in close proximity to their coworkers each day.
Consider how you might add new opportunities to help employees connect and laugh together more often. This might be as simple as adding a 15-minute breakout session to your company meetings where employees can share their hidden talents, hobbies, and passions in a smaller setting.
You’ll also need to think about how to give employees the flexibility to work anywhere without losing the camaraderie that comes with in-person collaboration.
For more tips on how to engage employees in a hybrid work environment, check out these research-backed recommendations from Verdantix.