This article was written by Dr Oliver Mallett, Lecturer in Management at Durham University Business School. The content here is based on research conducted with Dr Robert Wapshott, with funding from the UK's Economics and Social Research Council and will be published in the British Journal of Management.
Humour has an important role to play at work, helping to ease the working day, create a fun, friendly environment and remaining a favourite tool for corporate training videos. Humour for its own sake is important and something that can bring benefits, not least because people prefer an enjoyable place to work.
However, the very nature of humour brings with it important limits to its value in the workplace that managers would do well to recognise. My research has found that when managers try to use humour as a deliberate management tool for coping with issues of performance or employee conduct it can create new and unnecessary problems in working relationships.
The ambiguities of humour
The temptation to use humour when tackling serious or sensitive topics is understandable. Managers, especially those newly promoted to management roles and responsibilities, may wish to retain a friendly tone with employees or former peers. One attraction of using humour is the apparent promise of addressing a problem while avoiding direct confrontation. However, humour often relies on ambiguity or contradiction to make it funny, neither of which is particularly helpful when trying to convey specific, important information. While many a true word may be spoken in jest, in the work context it can sometimes be hard for employees to know whether a manager is simply joking, gently making a point about an employee’s future conduct or giving a serious instruction.
A common example of where the ambiguity of humour can get in the way of the message relates to working hours, particularly what time people arrive and when they leave the office. This was the type of issue that managers in my study tried to address with humour, making a joke of late arrivals (“Made it out of bed then?”) or early finishers (“Oh, bell’s gone!”). Unfortunately, such an approach does not give people an opportunity to explain why they are leaving, at least not without appearing humourless or as overreacting. The person who arrived early and so now leaves a little earlier than usual for some legitimate reason is left feeling hurt and unappreciated.
Meanwhile, others in the office begin to feel under pressure to account for their movements. The risk is that the hard workers feel criticised and hurt while the less committed ignore it, feeling the joke wasn’t serious or aimed at them. Such management approaches can also encourage the use of such communication tactics among others in the workplace and this can lead to bullying. Moreover, those who attempt to use humour as a management tool must be prepared for employees to respond in kind; something managers in my study struggled with regularly where it felt disrespectful or undermined their authority. Individual employees can soon begin to feel isolated and uncertain and the fun working environment managers hoped for can become anything but.
An experienced senior manager who participated in my research believed that the informal environment created through his use of humour would mean employees shared their thoughts and feelings with him. When humour is deployed with such aims it is likely to undermine rather than support efforts to build productive working relationships. The ambiguities of humour, together with a need to fit in, make it just as difficult to interpret the humour in what employees say as it is for managers to communicate direct messages.
To avoid the problems caused by trying to use humour for ends it cannot fulfil, careful consideration should be given to ‘straight-talking’. This is the under-valued ability to hold explicit, respectful conversations around problems that recognise where managers’ and employees’ interests or behaviours are in conflict so that the issues can be clearly addressed.
This more frank and open approach could prove uncomfortable, particularly if humour has previously allowed any sense of direct confrontation to be avoided. For this reason, new managers or those who have been promoted out of a team might need particular support in gaining the confidence to use this approach. Straight-talking requires commitment from all parties to maintain an explicit focus on the matters in hand and not dodge the issue, seeking refuge in humorous ambiguity. Any respite offered by avoiding the issue at hand will only be temporary as eventually the conflict, having potentially festered for some time, will require addressing. Surely it is preferable for all concerned that problems be resolved as they arise.
Straight-talking recognises the ambiguities and limits to humour and resists attempts to deploy it by default as a deliberate management tool.