Friday, 21 September 2012

Laugh and the workplace laughs with you

How far can a laugh carry? According to Christopher Robert and James Wilbanks, it can reverberate through time, with far-reaching consequences. Their theoretical paper, synthesising research from neuroscience, behavioural psychology and the workplace, suggests that funny incidents can have a cumulative positive effect through a 'Humour Wheel'.

Humour can be understood as a positive emotional state arising from incongruity: a joke puts two elements together in an unexpected way, and sarcasm belies what is said with what is intended  (and appears to facilitate creativity for this reason). It's one of the most intense positive emotions, putting aside triumph, which tends to accompany rare events, and sensual pleasure, typically inappropriate for a workplace. Humour is instead quintessentially social, and can occur frequently; for Robert and Wilbanks this is crucial, as established theories of workplace affective events (situations that change our mood or emotions) suggest that quantity matters more than significance of such events for shaping workplace outcomes.

Moreover, the contagious nature of laughter - we laugh at a laugh even shorn of context, and our brains respond to laughter sounds in a similar way as they do to something funny - means that a single moment of humour can evoke and encourage others - both directly through emotional contagion and also by acting as a trigger to permit employees to breach straight-faced operations with crinkled smiles. As a consequence, an instance of humour can lead to a longer-standing 'humour episode', and it is these that lift mood and have an effect on interpersonal contact, deepening affection and also helping to shape group norms of what behaviour is desirable - including 'humour is ok'. Hence, a positive feedback loop or wheel. Not every humour instance need be joy inducing; a wry comment can be sufficient to seed the ground and make it possible for other moments to follow.

What could be the consequences of the positive affect that humour elicits?  Frederickson's broaden-and-build theory suggests it encourages us to approach opportunities rather than retreat: exploration and playness ensue, allowing us to build positive resources for the future. This is a good way to make sense of the manifold effects of positive affect - on health, cooperation, organisational citizenship, job satisfaction, flow and more. And as negative states can form their own feedback loops, humour can be valuable as a derailer - its disruptive, intrusive quality ringing out over frustration or fear. Getting a 'humour wheel' going in regular work teams is clearly useful, and other contexts suggested by the authors include mentoring, where the importance of satisfying and informal relationships would naturally fit with humorous episodes, and also leadership, where leader affect is known to be contagious to employees, and the oft-desired transformational style is linked to humour usage. They call for deeper research into these areas, as well as how humour may work against tendencies to absenteesim and attrition, and suggest that 'humor might be an unsung hero in peoples’ day-to-day affective lives.'

ResearchBlogging.orgChristopher Robert, & James E Wilbanks (2012). The Wheel Model of humor: Humor events and affect in organizations Human Relations, 65 (9), 1071-1099 DOI: 10.1177/0018726711433133


  1. I can see how true this is. Just making a little joke can calm the nerves or be an ice breaker for anyone. Sometimes people think that it may be inappropriate for the work place but it can actually be a very good thing and can help build better relationships and relax people. Some people could really use this information. I think it is so cool that this is not just a social matter but it is also in the neurons in our brain which is the basic unit of communication.
    Thank you for sharing

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  3. Laughter is the best medicine indeed, especially when it comes to stress due to heavy work loads in the office. A very informative post. Thanks much.

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