Ask LH: Can I Be Funny At Work Without Ruining My Reputation?

Ask LH: Can I Be Funny At Work Without Ruining My Reputation?

Dear Lifehacker, I like telling jokes and making people laugh. I want to be able to use this skill in my career to network and get along better with my coworkers, but I don’t want to get labelled unprofessional — I still want people to take me seriously. Can I strike a balance without shooting myself in the foot? Sincerely, Charismatic Clown

Dear Stay the Heck Out of My Nightmares,

Talking about how comedy works and how to use it might just be the least funny thing on the planet, but you’ve actually hit on one frequently overlooked career tool: making people laugh. It’s not just about making your workday more fun, either. Developing a good sense of humour can help your career.

As we’ve covered before, a Robert Half International survey found that 91 per cent of executives believed that a good sense of humour was necessary for advancement. Eighty-four per cent believed that it also helped people do a better job. While talking about a “sense of humour” can mean appreciating jokes just as much as making them, it’s pretty clear that if you want to move up, knowing how to be just the right amount of funny is an advantage over the candidate that doesn’t.

Not only that, but a paper from the Academy of Management Perspectives (PDF here) found that a number of studies demonstrated humour in the workplace improved communication, reduced stress, encouraged creativity, and even enhanced the leadership’s position by “establishing their hierarchical position” and “reducing social distance between leaders and followers.” On a related note, these are the least funny words ever used to describe comedy.

Observe Proper Comedy Etiquette

Ask LH: Can I Be Funny At Work Without Ruining My Reputation?

OK, as a person who possesses the ability to laugh, you probably don’t need to be told that being funny is beneficial. Fair enough. But how do you actually use that talent to improve your standing at work? Like any good comedy, it’s all in how you present.

Learn Moderation

If it’s open mic night at the Chuckle Hut, hop on stage and let your best material fly for five minutes straight. If you’re at the office, the time you spend yukking it up should be kept to a minimal percentage. Your team is there to work and if you spend too much time. As a personal guideline, I try to observe the Three Gag Rule.

Simply put, the Three Gag Rule states that during any work-related conversation or meeting, if more than three jokes or gags are made in a row by anyone on the team, it’s time to dial it down and get back on track. Three jokes is enough to tell a decent story (beginning, middle, and end), escalate an idea, and build camaraderie. Plus, our puny human brains really like the number three. It feels satisfying.

It’s by no means a perfect rule. Sometimes one comment is the most you should have. If you’re giving a presentation, you probably don’t want to get deviate from the topic long enough to get more than a single joke out. And if your team is brainstorming and there’s a flow going, don’t stifle the ideas just because you’ve hit your Comedy Quota. However, if you think you might be trying too hard, the Three Gag Rule can help keep you in line.

Stick to the Light-Hearted Side

Humour is a powerful tool to convey ideas and build relationships. It can also be used to ridicule and destroy. This isn’t always an easy line to find, but it’s essential to locate it in the workplace. There are a few things you should avoid, at least at first:

  • Stick with neutral or uplifting jokes: Everyone has their own style and tone to their jokes, but critical or cynical humour can drag the mood down. Some people (a lot in fact!) enjoy dark comedy, but if you don’t know for sure, you can get labelled as the office jerk pretty quick.
  • Don’t single someone out: Cracking wise about a particular person can turn from friendly roasting to being an arsehole faster than you can say “human resources complaint”. It can be tempting to show off or make fun of someone to exert dominance, but those strategies tend to backfire or earn you an unfavourable reputation.
  • Avoid controversial topics: You have strong opinions on refugees, Calvinism and same-sex marriage. Great. Keep it to yourself. The only thing worse than a coworker who keeps mocking your ideas is the inevitable serious argument the jokes will lead to.

Know Your Audience

Every good comedian knows that making people laugh is all about connecting with the listener. This is an art that can take a lifetime to master, but if you’re trying to use being funny as a career-building tool, you’ll need to learn it faster than others.

You can start with the simple things like avoiding certain jokes with your boss. Follow the universal etiquette rule to set the tone: follow the host. In this case, the host is your boss. If they’re a serious person, keep the humour minimal (or non-existent). If they like to laugh, let loose. Think of your sense of humour like a tap. Don’t open it completely up right away. Start with a light trickle and work your way up.

Pandering (somewhat) is also your friend in this case. Learn what your bosses, coworkers and industry colleagues like and find a way to work with that instead of coming in with prepared jokes. One-liners are OK, and everyone should have a few tucked away in their back pocket, but if your goal is to charm and woo your way to the top, it needs to come naturally.

Most of all, if you violate something in this article and it works, go with it. Humour is one of the few facets of the human condition that knows almost zero hard, fast rules. If you can make a crowd laugh with a poorly phrased political pun or an annoying alliteration, get comfortable with it and go to town. Just remember to get back to work once you’re done.


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