Alex Fradera on digest.bps.org.uk.
Science suggests a funnier workplace should be a more effective one, encouraging positive mood and a playful, open approach. But much of the evidence to date rests on theoretical argument or lab experiments. Now a new study of genuine team meetings shows that laughter begets laughter and that bouts of humour really can clear the ground for new approaches and better performance.
Using videos taken as part of an improvement process run across two German companies, the study was able to determine the flow of interactions within real team meetings. Researchers Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock and Joseph Allen found laughter was likely to follow attempts at humour – although damp squibs were also possible – and that laughter could also trigger more jokes, effectively producing humour-laughter-humour chains. This tallies with past contributions to the field that suggest humour tends to stick around when introduced.
Moments after the laughter died down from a joke, teams were more likely to engage in productive, open behaviours, such as proposing new ideas, asking questions, or offering praise or encouraging participation by others. This fits with the broaden-and-build model of positive states, where a good mood opens us up to other people and different ideas – all useful in a collaborative context.
These behaviours appear to contribute to longer-term performance, according to ratings given by team supervisors post-meeting and two years on. The higher the number of “humour plus laughter” incidents (but not humour or laughter alone), the better these ratings tended to be. The repeated importance of humour in tandem with laughter suggest that it’s not purely elevated mood or a quality of wannabe jokers, but a more dynamic give and take between team members that makes the difference.
We’re still in the early days of understanding humour’s effects in real work environments. This study only considered positive humour and set aside ridicule or spiteful jokes. We know from the lab that sarcasm can have surprising, even beneficial effects, but will this translate to a real-world context? Also, this study only looked at teams with members fairly long in tenure, so what about the other extreme: the consequences of a team’s first shared joke? Plenty of punchlines yet to come!