Is Cracking-Wise Wise? What Evidence Suggests About Humor Use in the Workplace

Key Points:

  1. Not all forms of humor are the same and different forms of humour can have different outcomes.
  1. Successful uses of humor (the sort that results in other people appreciating or finding funny) should be differentiated from unsuccessful humor use (jokes that don’t land well or that fail to deliver the intended humorous effect with their audience).
  1. Successful positive use of humor has been found to deliver a number of positive organizational outcomes in different domains of work.

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At work, during a meeting, I sometimes make jokes. Or during a discussion with colleagues I might make, what I hope to be, a funny remark. All in the hopes of making the atmosphere a bit lighter or connecting and building relationships with others. But, in hind-sight, I often wonder if it was such a good idea. Is it a good idea to bring humor into the workplace? Does it enhance or detract from a professional environment? Is humor generally well accepted by others in the workplace or is it something that people just go along with to get along? I imagine that colleagues and supervisors alike are asking themselves these same questions. So we investigated what science had to say about what role humor has to play in the workplace and how might humor impact work and professional relationships.

Differentiating Funny from Flop

Asking questions about humor is much easier than answering them. But, answering such questions has always begun by defining what you’re studying and finding a way to objectively measure it. So, researchers first must define what makes something humorous and how to set it apart from something that’s not. If you’re anything like me, you may recognize a tenuous moment just after you’ve made a funny remark, as you wait to see how it lands with the audience receiving it. Will people enjoy it? Will no one react? Or, even worse, will someone find it offensive? Interestingly, it’s in that precise moment that lies one clue of how researchers define humor. Successful humor use is defined as ‘mutually amusing communication – where the amusing thoughts intended to be communicated by the speaker are reciprocally received and perceived to be amusing by the audience’. I make a joke, someone hears my joke and the amusement is shared between us. In short, I jest and others smile.

The Many Different Kinds of Humor

As you are probably well aware there are many different kinds of humor. Shows like ‘The office’, ‘Mr. Bean’, ‘Little Britain’ and ‘Monthy Python’ are each considered to be funny by a lot of different people. But each of these shows are quite different in precisely how they’re funny; the content, target, and nature of their jokes; and this delivers unique responses from each of their audiences. So, it should come as no surprise that psychologists (people who study human thoughts, feelings, and behavior) who study humor classify it using a similar framework.

Humor can be either negative or positive and it can be either directed inwardly or outwardly. Negative humor is at the cost of oneself or of others. If I were to sarcastically proclaim that, ‘Yes, I’m so organized that I plan my own procrastination’ it would be a great example of negative, self-deprecating humor – or humor had at one’s own expense.  Although very common in comedy broadly speaking, comedians like Dave Chappelle have repeatedly been under fire for making jokes that touch on subjects of race, sex, and gender where specific groups of people are perceived as being the subject or target of these jokes in a way that sometimes makes fun of them at their expense. Such joking at the expense of others are classic examples of negative outwardly directed humor – which, if not careful, can exclude others. Rather than drawing amusement at the expense of someone (whether it be oneself or others) positive humor draws its amusement while being the constructive kind, bolstering oneself or the group as a whole, enhancing the relationships between jokester and audience, and increasing feelings of well-being for those around them. For example, I keep on my desk, a tiny reminder that says “don’t panic, it’s only chaos”. It doesn’t specifically target anyone and I draw some well-being from it every time I look at it.

Of course, as it is with most of human behavior, things are rarely so clear cut. It’s easy to imagine someone making a funny remark to make themselves feel better and, at the same time, ease tensions during a serious meeting. Jokes about race, sex, or gender can be simultaneously self-deprecating and directed at others.  Depending on the individual who happens to read my tiny office reminder it may be perceived as positive or negative.  Luckily, all of this gray area keeps scientists hard at work pulling strings to find important details and useful insights for application in and out of the workplace.

The Effects of Humor in the Workplace

Three researchers from the university of North Carolina Wilmington & Florida International University have recently published a meta-analysis investigating the effect of humor use in the workplace. The study brings fresh insight on an understudied subject by collecting and analyzing the last forty years of research. Mesmer-Magnus, Glew and Viswesvaran analyzed the effects of humor across 49 academic papers including over 8,500 research participants. They specifically looked at successful positive humor use and its effects on relationships, wellbeing, and performance. There were many findings but the most prominent of them can explain the effects of humor used generally, by coworkers, and by supervisors.

Humor Use by Employees

Research has generally shown that experiences of positive humor are literally good for the heart and soul. Mesmer-Magnus and colleagues, found some support for these findings in a work-relevant context.  Positive humor used in the workplace was positively associated with improved health and wellbeing outcomes like lower levels of stress and burnout and higher levels of self-reported health and wellness.  Also, humor uttered by colleagues tended to be associated with positive work-related outcomes like performance and team cohesion.  Although these effects were generally found to be small individually, the effects of humor on organizational functioning were quite positive in nature suggesting that positive humor does play a role in the workplace and it tends to be for the better.

Humor Use by Supervisors

There’s a great deal of research that specifically focuses on communication and interactions between leaders and subordinates and the resultant effects. Together, Mesmer-Magnus and colleagues, found that a leader’s sense of humor influences many of the same employee work-related outcomes as does employees’ humor use. Humor used by supervisors was found to be associated with work-related outcomes like higher job satisfaction, greater team cohesion and less social distancing at work. Where there was more positive humor use, people were generally found to be happier with their jobs and tended to work together more tightly with their colleagues.  People also tended to perceive humorous supervisors as more competent; the more positive humor that was used by supervisors, the better their supervisor tended to be rated in terms of their performance and satisfaction with their relationship with their boss.


While this study is an improvement in the field, it has three important limitations to consider. First, humor in psychology remains understudied and needs a better foundational understanding. Second, this study focused on positive humor, so its findings may not apply to negative humor. Third, the research only identifies correlations, and we need experimental studies to determine causation. Future research can certainly help us to better understand these complexities.

Takeaways for practice

  • Yes, a professional environment and the successful use of positive humor can go hand in hand.
  • Successful positive use of humor may soften the potentially harmful effects of particularly stressful periods of work (for example, crunch-time nearing the end of large projects with firm deadlines) or to cope with difficult and stressful jobs (for example, jobs with emergency services).
  • Positive humor may be a good organizational indicator: workplaces where this kind of humor is thriving might be workplaces where the job gets done and relations are going well.
  • As a prospective employee, you may “feel out” the organizational culture to gauge their sense and use of humor as it may be a good indicator of the status of the organization.  You may note or probe sense of humor throughout the introductions, interview, and on-boarding process.
  • For supervisors: research seems to show that there is minimal reason to shy away from positive humor use. Using positive humor with attentive care may improve working relationships and the atmosphere of the workplace.  However, care should still be taken to respect everyone within the organization and that may mean exercising great caution with negative humor use as the effects of negative humor may be more complex than those of positive humor.

By better understanding the nuance of humor, you are better equipped to use it effectively and unite your team in jest!

Trustworthiness score:

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the rapid evidence assessment we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We can conclude the cross-sectional meta-analysis provides limited but relatively trustworthy findings supporting humor’s associations with various work-related outcomes (70%).

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Mesmer‐Magnus, J., Glew, D. J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2012). A meta‐analysis of positive humor in the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology. A meta‐analysis of positive humor in the workplace | Emerald Insight

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