business communicationWhy do we even try to be funny at work?

There are definite benefits to laughing on the job. And, if you’re in charge of anything … or anyone … humor can be a minefield in a meeting, conference call, or presentation.

Maybe you want to boost morale. Bring the team together. Generate some positive feelings about the company and each other. Or maybe you just want to liven up a mind-numbing meeting and reduce everyone’s stress.

The pros call that “interpersonal affect regulation”—it’s an attempt to shift someone’s mood.

When it works the way it’s supposed to, mission accomplished! Mood, shifted. You see smiles, you sense more energy in the room, you watch people relax. And of course, they laugh.

But what if their facial expression doesn’t change even a little bit? Or you get just a tiny hint of a smile instead of the hearty laugh you hoped for? Or they respond with anger instead of amusement?

When humor boomerangs, you didn’t meet your morale-boosting, stress-reducing, make-‘em-smile goals. Worse yet, the misfire can have a negative impact on your audience and even on your own career.

I’m not suggesting that you refrain from funny. There are good, solid reasons to bring humor into your business life.

  • Shared laughter breaks monotony and relieves tension. It can bolster connections among colleagues and deepen relationships with clients.
  • That laughter contributes to engagement. Engaged employees told Gallup interviewers they smile and laugh often during their work week. The chronically disengaged, not so much.
  • Being humorous is likely to be good for you, too, and for your image with colleagues and customers. Humor can convey confidence, competence and charisma.

And … caution is definitely in order when you try to regulate interpersonal affect with humor.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you contemplate that clever remark or hilarious story.

What’s your point?

Humor is most effective when it ties into the purpose of your meeting or presentation. Dropping in a random joke you heard from some comedian, just for the sake of getting a laugh? That’s much less likely to be effective.

For that matter, canned jokes never have the impact of an anecdote from your own life that has a humorous twist. I’ve known guys (and yes, they’ve all been guys) who literally kept a joke book in their desk so they could stick a little ha-ha into a teleconference. Can we agree that jokes like that belong with switchboards and carbon paper in the “history of work” exhibit?

Who’s your audience?

Before you try to make people laugh, you need to understand who those people are. Demographics, of course. Men? Women? Both? Millennials? The over-sixty set?

Beyond that, have they worked here for years or were they hired last month? Do they have advanced degrees or high school diplomas? Are they secure about their positions, or worried about a wave of layoffs? All of it will make a difference in how your witty comment lands.

What’s your goal?

Are you out to rally the troops for an all-out end-of-the-year sales blitz? Remind the team they are a team? Highlight your company’s superiority over the competition? You’re looking for a story that takes you in that direction.

Think twice about satire.

Then think again. If your humor tends toward the ironic, you’ll want to be cautious.

It can be tough to make sure everyone understands that you’re kidding. You might think your tone of voice or facial expression make it abundantly clear that you’re not serious.

In reality, people miss those cues all the time. They take a satirical or sarcastic remark literally and the next thing you know their feelings are hurt or they’re furious and you’re trying to undo the damage.

Your best target’s in the mirror.

 Rather than teasing a colleague or mocking a manager, if your funny comment needs a target, make it you. Self-effacing humor gives us the tension-taming, morale-boosting, spirit-lifting benefits without running the risk of stepping on somebody’s toes.

Those are your own toes you’re stepping on. That’s safe.

One caveat, though. Self-effacing humor can be hilarious coming from someone we perceive as confident and comfortable in their own skin.

If you come across as self-conscious, diffident or insecure, making fun of yourself is probably not your best bet. Putting yourself down, even in jest, will reinforce those perceptions.

What’s NSFW?

Depends on your W, I guess. For most of us, the subjects that are Not Safe For Work include politics. Race. Ethnicity. Disabilities. And sex.

Anything that polarizes people should probably be off-limits. The specifics have shifted over time as culture and sensitivities change. Our parents kidded around with colleagues in ways we would be wise not to emulate.

Whether you think of that shift as catering to snowflakes or just being a decent human being…well, that might be a polarizing topic right there.

Bottom line: Quip with caution.

 Humor can make work more fun, enliven the atmosphere and drive home a point that might otherwise be overlooked. There are a lot of good reasons to bring your wit to work.

And, you’ve seen how an attempt at humor can go sideways, so use good judgment when you jest.

Maybe you’ve hit the jackpot with a joke in a meeting. Or torpedoed a teleconference with a remark that turned out not to be so funny.

Post a comment below to give us your take on humor at work.