Laughing at work can actually make people take your career more seriously

No joke: Laughing at work can seriously help your career.
When former corporate sales executive Betty-Ann Heggie first laughed loudly at a work dinner a few years ago, she first felt embarrassed about her hearty cackle when she roared louder than anyone else at a joke. But she soon realized that her easy laugh was one of her strongest assets.
“Humor is one of the best ways to find common ground. I’ve found in my career (that) it’s been helpful whenever I had to draw a boundary,” Heggie, 65, told Moneyish. When a colleague stole her idea at a meeting a number of years ago, for example, she went comical instead of being confrontational.
“I made a joke and said, ‘I thought it was a great idea when I mentioned it a couple of days ago,’ and people kind of stopped and chuckled,” she said, advising workers in a similar position to make light of the situation while still standing up for themselves. “You could say something like, ‘I’m glad you got my idea, can I build on that,’” she suggested.
Wisecracking has also allowed her to call out coworkers in a more palatable way, like the time multiple male colleagues left a conference room littered with coffee cups, assuming she’d clean it up. “I said, ‘Just because I’m a woman, doesn’t mean I have the biological need to clean up,’” Heggie recalled. They got the hint, and pitched in on picking up. “I do think that (for) women, having a sense of humor is a really important way of combating subconscious bias,” she added.
Heggie is since retired, but she’s made it her mission to mentor young women in the workplace, most recently writing a first-person essay for The Harvard Business Review on how her sense of humor helped her navigate her career. And studies show this: When someone tells a joke that others like, the person is seen as having more competence and status. And when people show their sense of humor at work and are well liked because of it, it can lead to getting a pay bump or promotion another workplace study showed.
Indeed, humor has a funny way of making the workplace manageable, and even boosting a person’s job status in some cases.
“Someone might be really efficient, but if they are nose to the grindstone and don’t act like they enjoy themselves, you don’t think their work is as good as someone you’ve laughed with. If you have a smile on, people are going to think better of your work,” Heggie said, drawing on her own workplace observations. A 2017 Singapore Management University study even found that some business and political leaders were hiring humor coaches, which cost an estimated $500 to $700, on average. That’s because laughter relieves stress and the mundane at work, and leads to collaboration. Other research suggests that employees who watched a comedy clip were 10% more productive than their counterparts.
Career experts say that having a sense of humor can also make you come across as more relatable, and help you network better within your company.
“You can use it as a tool to make people feel more comfortable with you, whether it’s because you’re the boss; or you don’t want people to feel intimidated; or because you’re different in some way or feel like an outsider,” said Alexandra Dickinson, a career expert at the SoFi personal finance company. For example, if you’re a new hire and trying to relate to some of your new colleagues, you can show them that you’re approachable and easygoing with a joke or subtle sarcasm. If you’re in a more senior role, giving criticism to a fellow employee by sharing a time that you made a similar mistake with humor can show them that it’s a learning curve and they’re not alone.
Dickinson noted that having a sense of humor is also a good way to find common ground with someone if you disagree on something, but you can both laugh about the same thing. “If you’re trying to build a bridge, that’s really effective,” she said.
The key to making humor work for you is knowing your audience, especially if you’re cracking jokes informally, Dickinson added. And research suggests that if you make fun of yourself too much, you not only risk being taken less seriously as a professional, but that self-deprecation can also highlight weaknesses that can hurt your credibility, research suggests.
Having a sense of humor can also bring a number of positive mental health benefits into the workplace. Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases infection-fighting antibodies while triggering the release of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals our body produces, to promote a sense of wellness and even alleviate pain temporarily.
“Humor can be divisive, or it can be supportive,” said John Quelch, the dean at the University of Miami Business School, adding that managers in particular can lead better with humor, as well as boost confidence in their employees. “Self-deprecating humor is extremely helpful, and increasingly so these days. It really is a means of reassuring people who are uncertain about themselves that even the boss is uncertain about themselves.”
Of course, there’s a fine line of how much self-deprecating humor you should show in at work -- if you appear to dumb yourself down too often, or show that you’re incapable of doing tasks you were hired to do, employees could question and even start to resent your high standing, especially if the person is a more senior employee, Heggie explained.
Laughing also boosts engagement and overall job satisfaction, other studies have shown, which experts say is crucial to doing a good job a work.
“I’m a great believer in the notion that an organization should be fun to work in. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be laced with humor, but there has to be a good humored and supportive work environment where everyone can feel as though they’re making a contribution and can collaborate,” Quelch said, adding that a workplace that fosters some light-hearted banter can boost innovation.
“Creating a fun organization means that the organization is more creative. (And) the more creative an organization is, the more productive and innovative it’s going to be,” he said. “There’s a well-documented relationship between a fun environment and workplace productivity.”