The power of humor in the workplace

The employee tells the truth while smiling: The power of humor in the workplace!

Humor is entertainment. At least, that’s how it’s often seen, giving it the stamp of irresponsible waste of time during working hours. But research shows that humor is a particularly powerful tool for influencing groups and individuals. Humor, therefore, deserves a special place in the workplace.

“Excuse me, sir, do you have a million euros?” The homeless man looks at me quizzically. I am regularly approached by homeless people who begin Brussels-South and in the meantime, I have come up with all kinds of arguments why I should not give money. But I had never received such a million-dollar question.

“Um… no, not yet.”

“Oh too bad, I just had to have a chance once”, he replied. I thought that was quite funny and gave him two euros.

Unexpected present:

It was only later on the train that I could calmly go over what had just happened. I was distracted by his joke. I forgot all the arguments with which I convinced myself not to give anything. Instead, I laughed and gave him money. His joke had completely changed my behavior. Simple, yet punishing.

This is how humor works: as an unexpected gift. We see the same areas of the brain light up when people watch cartoons as when they get a reward. But they are gifts with the added quality of distracting you from your usual thinking patterns. You are taken out of your thinking patterns and immediately rewarded with a positive feeling. That’s the power of humor.

Social Lube:

Research shows that humor has five social functions: stimulating group feeling, attacking others in a socially acceptable way, gaining approval from others, defusing threatening situations, and expressing opposition. And all this by handing out unexpected gifts. Who hands out a lot of presents, can afford more and get more in return from others. By distracting everyone for a while and installing a positive feeling.

They are all functions for adjusting people in a group or influencing group behavior, extremely useful in work situations. Ultimately, an organization is a group of people who try to achieve something together. The better that group can communicate and collaborate, the easier that group can achieve their common goal. Social tools that contribute to this are therefore a real added value. Humor is such a social lubricant to make a group function better.

Miracle Cure:

Suppose we were to develop a new pill at university that acts as a stress buffer. Would you use that pill?

Wait before you answer because this miracle cure is more than just a stress buffer. The pill also ensures that you work more effectively and attentively, function better, are more flexible, improve your memory, are more open to feedback, push your boundaries more, are more creative, are more productive, show more team cohesion, have more positive feelings, more are satisfied with your work, are mentally and physically healthier, and if you take the pill, you are more likely to have sex (both men and women). In addition, all effects have been scientifically proven and the pill is distributed free of charge. Would you use that pill? I suspect so (if only for sex).

We all use them, every day. These effects were found in 8,532 subjects in 49 studies on humor. Humor thus brings not only social benefits but also many individual ones. Humor is that panacea that is worth using.

joke drum:

Going to work tomorrow with a crazy nose? Reading jokes from the big joke box in the afternoon? No, it’s not that simple. After all, there are two important conditions to enjoy the positive effects of humor. You must have a social sense and the humor must be spontaneous.

You must be able to read social and emotional cues in others, as humor can also be very destructive. Tying up a colleague and pouring limescale over it: a few years ago it was ‘a a joke’ for the perpetrators, traumatic bullying for the victim. So you have to be emotionally intelligent and concerned with social circumstances. In addition, your general intelligence and the extent to which you are open to new experiences also predict how funny you can be.

Forcing humor is counterproductive. As handy as it would be, unfortunately, you can’t force colleagues to be funny. Many of the positive effects then reverse. A singing fish on the wall in the coffee corner is not the secret to bringing humor to the workplace. But you can create a work atmosphere where there is room to be funny. When a break lasts longer because a spontaneous fair is organized where colleagues laugh and have fun together, you should not immediately label this as wasted time, but see the added value.


For now, there is no research that tells you how to be funny. But there are some suggestions. Humor often comes from making original associations. And it has been shown that you can practice it directly. This is something that people who play improv theater train very hard on: faster than the audience makes original associations. Moreover, in improvisation, you also learn the communication rules to stimulate humor and creativity in a group.

In summary, humor is a special tool to adjust behavior in the workplace, but you must have social insight and a spontaneous atmosphere to make it successful. So it is scientifically justified to dust off your port pillow and serve salty chocolates during the meetings. But above all try to name situations with humor, to defuse them, and to promote group cohesion. Suppose things go wrong, then in the worst-case scenario, you can always ask people in Brussels-South if they don’t happen to have a million euros in their pocket.