Wanted: senior managers with a sense of humour

It’s no joke - US companies are adopting humour as a tool to improve performance. Could the same approach work in Australia?

Do you avoid making jokes at work for fear of causing a distraction – or worry that joining in office banter might create the wrong impression? Then maybe it’s time to lighten up.

Far from being unprofessional, research has found that humour can be a powerful management tool. A little fun and laughter can encourage team bonding, boost motivation and relieve stress. Humour can also offer a safe way for people to vent their frustrations and for managers to provide feedback without employees taking offence.

So strong is the evidence that managers in the US are being encouraged to incorporate humour into their management style while companies such as Google and Southwest Airlines have made it a part of their culture. However as the research so far has focused on the US, it is hard to know if Australian managers could follow exactly the same approach.

Now a team of academics aims to change that. Professor Charmine Härtel from UQ Business School, together with Nilupama Wijewardena, Ramanie Samaratunge and Andrea Kirk-Brown from Monash University, are calling for more research into humour at work in Australia.

The indications are that the US approach would resonate with Australians, who are renowned for their gregarious and outgoing nature. “In a social setting, Australians use humour more than any other nation except the Americans, and they have more positive attitudes to funny people than both the Americans and the British,” says Professor Härtel.

“There is rich potential for Australian managers to use humour to achieve positive outcomes for both employees and their organisations. However to discover how best to tap into these opportunities, we need more empirical research.”

To find out more about Australian attitudes, the research team started off with a study of their own. They surveyed over 400 people from different backgrounds and organisations and found that almost all of them accepted and engaged in humour at work and enjoyed doing so. Humour was widespread in 26% of workplaces, and an occasional occurrence in 59%. Just 0.2% of respondents considered it unacceptable.

Contrary to previous research which suggests men appreciate humour more than women, they found humour at work was slightly more common amongst females (86%) than males (78%). Non-managers (85%) also engaged in humour slightly more than managers (83%) and Australian-born workers (87%) joined in only a bit more than those born overseas (82%) – perhaps because the former better understand and identify with the cultural subtleties that may be embedded in jokes. Managers do need to be aware of and cater for the sense of humour of overseas-born employees, who now account for 26.5% of the workforce.

The main benefits were seen as creating an enjoyable work environment, strengthening bonds between colleagues and relieving stress and boredom. Some respondents said humour allowed them to confront a colleague in a nonthreatening manner or discipline an employee without making them feel dejected.

Professor Härtel says: “We know from this study that Australians’ sense of humour extends to their work domains as well as their social lives. The fact that men and women, managers and non-managers, and migrants and non-migrants all expected managers to use humour indicates that it can have positive effects across different demographic groups.”

The researchers suggest that organisations should look to create humour-friendly cultures and, instead of relying on spontaneous fun and laughter, actively encourage employees to engage in humour, provided it is done with positive intentions.

Professor Härtel adds: “Spontaneous conversational humour such as anecdotes, puns and banter, while interacting with employees can become a part of the managerial style, as can more formal types of humour such as canned jokes and rehearsed funny stories during formal events such as meetings, training and employee evaluation.

“Managers could consider using humour to create better relationships and bonds with their employees as well as buffering them from work stress.”

However the team warns that humour can be a double-edged sword, one which can be used to harass and ridicule others. Managers should never use or tolerate negative humour and must also be sensitive to different cultural backgrounds.

The researchers believe humour at work should now have a firm place on the research agenda. “Creating good relationships and functional teams are essential for organisational performance and humour can be an effective way to achieve this,” says Professor Härtel. “It also provides a solution to combat the rising cost of workplace stress.

“We hope our work has paved the way for further research into managerial humour as a tool for creating positive outcomes for employees and organisations alike.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019