What is something that produces chemicals within the brain as if you are meditating and exercising at the same time, but is HR approved? Humor.1 Humor can be beneficial both outside the workplace and within the workplace. Outside of the workplace, humor improves physical well-being and mental health.2 Inside of the workplace, humor has been shown to reduce the negative effects of workplace stress and enhance job performance. Employee humor also boosts job satisfaction, team cohesion, health, and coping effectiveness, while decreasing burnout and work withdrawal.2
But what exactly is humor? Is it stand-up comedy at the local club? Is it enjoyed with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn while watching Saturday Night Live? How can humor even be used tastefully within the workplace? Can you use it to get stiff peaks in your meringues? All of these are excellent questions (especially the last one), and we hope to touch on some of them in this wonderfully written blog post.
What Is Humor?
Alas, we do not have any answers to how humor can be used to get stiff peaks in your meringues because meringue behavior is not easy to research from a psychology perspective. Luckily, human behavior is relatively easy to research; however, a definition of humor is sadly not as easy to understand as the jokes that come with it.3
One of the keys to understanding and defining humor is the distinction between humor and sense of humor. Humor is a behavior or communication style that is mutually amusing, whereas sense of humor has been defined as a quasi-personality characteristic or cognitive ability.2 Another way of thinking about the differences is that humor is a behavior and sense of humor is a characteristic or trait.4
Types of Humor Styles
We will focus on the model that served as the foundation of the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ),5 which was used in our research at Hogan. This theory categorizes humor into four different humor styles:
- Affiliative humor – This is a positive humor style that is nonthreatening and nonhostile toward others.5 An individual who scores high on Affiliative humor tends to create relationships and reduce interpersonal tension by telling jokes, saying funny things, or just being witty.6
- Self-enhancing humor – This is a positive humor style that is nonthreatening and nonhostile toward oneself.5 Someone who uses this humor style might try to twist the situation to lighten the mood after something bad happens to them. Individuals who score higher on this humor style tend to maintain a humorous and positive outlook on life, even during challenging times.5
- Self-defeating humor – This is a negative humor style that is threatening and hostile toward the person using it.5 While this is a negative humor style, it can be used strategically to reduce the status and power distance between a leader and their followers.6
- Aggressive humor – This is a negative humor style that is threatening and hostile towards others.5 Individuals higher on this humor style tend to use humor without any regard for others’ feelings.7
You may have noticed there are some common denominators across these humor styles. All four humor styles can be categorized into a two-by-two matrix with one side of the matrix representing the direction of humor that is being used (self-directed versus other-directed) and the other side of the matrix representing the impact of the humor (positive versus negative).8
Successful Humor is Relational and Situational
So, should an individual just stay away from using negative forms of humor? The answer to this question is the typical “it depends” answer. It really depends on the context and the relationship between the individuals. Within the leadership realm, specifically, both positive and negative humor have been found to be good (or bad) for a leader and follower, depending on the relationship between the two.8 If the two have built rapport and trust, then either positive or negative forms of humor can be successful.9 But if the relationship between the two individuals is not healthy and trustful, then both positive and negative forms of humor will likely fail and quite possibly do more harm than good.
Humor is subjective. An individual using humor may intend to use it for one purpose, but the result of the humor may not go as planned. An individual may use a positive form of humor with the intent to build a relationship with a new coworker, but if the new coworker is not receptive to the humor, then the humor has failed.
The key to successful humor is how the humor is received, not the intent. It’s very similar to how Hogan views personality. At Hogan, we focus on how others are likely to see you in the workplace (your reputation) rather than how you see yourself (your identity). Using a humor style in certain situations could result in a negative impact on your reputation in the workplace, regardless of how you see yourself.
For example, using self-enhancing humor could lead to people viewing you as overconfident. Or maybe you use an aggressive type of humor without a strong relationship with an individual and they start to see you as being inappropriate and unprofessional in the workplace. Years of research by Hogan has determined that reputation matters more than identity when it comes to workplace outcomes. What this means is that someone can think they are using humor to their benefit, but others may not perceive it positively — and that’s what really matters.
Context is the other key factor for using humor well at work. If you’re a stand-up comedian in a bar, then you will likely be in an environment where some risky types of humor could be used, but if you’re a judge in a courtroom, you may want to steer clear of some types of humor.
The use of humor can be a fine line to walk, especially with humor’s subjectivity and strong potential for causing offense (especially when dabbling in negative humor types). Being aware of your context and environment is key for the successful use of humor. In addition to the context of the environment, being aware of which humor style you are using is important. Having that awareness can prevent you from unintentionally using a form of humor that may not be appropriate in your current context.
The Role of Personality in Humor Style
At Hogan, we know that behaviors and personality characteristics are related. An individual’s personality will be a driver for their behavior, but through strategic self-awareness, feedback, and targeted development, people can modify their behavior. Strategic self-awareness has three components:
- Understanding our own strengths and opportunities for change and growth
- Understanding how our strengths and challenges relate to those of others
- Understanding how to adapt our behavior to increase our effectiveness
To use humor effectively in the workplace, individuals must have some degree of strategic self-awareness. They should understand their own humor style, when that humor style is effective, and when they need to flex away from their natural humor style to be successful. Individuals who do that are more likely to garner a reputation of being influential and gregarious in the organization, which can help them ultimately become more successful.
The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), Hogan Development Survey (HDS), and Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) are excellent resources that can assist with becoming more strategically self-aware of your own personality. If you are interested in learning how these Hogan assessments relate to humor style (or just have some free time on your calendar), please join us for our upcoming webinar.
This post was authored by Cody Warren, talent analytics consultant, and Jessie McClure, corporate solutions consultant.
1. Aaker, J., & Bagdonas, N. (2021, February 5). How to Be Funny at Work. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/02/how-to-be-funny-at-work
2. Mesmer-Magnus, J., Glew, D. J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2012). A meta-analysis of positive humor in the workplace, Journal of Managerial Psychology, 27(2), 155-190.
3. Burford, C. (1987). Humor of principals and its impact on teachers and the school. Journal of Educational Administration, 25(1), 29-54.
4. Cooper, C. D. (2005). Just joking around? Employee humor expression as an ingratiatory behavior. Academy of Management Review, 30(4), 765-776.
5. Martin, R. A., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(1), 48-75.
6. Romero, E. J., & Cruthirds, K. W. (2006). The use of humor in the workplace. Academy of Management Perspectives, 20(2), 58-69.
8. Robert, C., Dunne, T. C., & Iun, J. (2016). The impact of leader humor on subordinate job satisfaction: The crucial role of leader-subordinate relationship quality. Group and Organization Management, 41(3), 375-407.
9. Tremblay, M. (2017). Humor in Teams: Multilevel relationships between humor climate, inclusion, trust, and citizenship behaviors. Journal of Business Psychology, 32, 363-378.