Workplace humour: Jokes that are not necessarily funny

Everyone agreed that Jack, the vice president of information systems in the company, was a very funny guy. He had an unusual, self-deprecating twist to his humour, he knew how to get laughs out of people and to help them see the lighter side of things. But his banter also had a darker side, especially when it was directed at others. While his coworkers would laugh when he joked about colleagues’ imperfections, it would also leave them with a bitter aftertaste. It was difficult to decipher his true intentions. Was he using humour to defend against his own insecurities or was he using having fun to mask his hostility?

Is it really funny?

Humour is a complex cognitive function that often, but not necessarily, leads to laughter. It may be used in a variety of ways, to both positive and negative effect. Most of us, when we engage in humour, do so to entertain. Such humour is congenial and empathetic: it brings people together. However, there are also instances in which humour is used in a more malicious way. Making jokes or “laughing at” someone else’s expense may be funny for some but not necessarily funny for the subject of ridicule.

Humour deconstructed

From an evolutionary perspective, humour must have had a survival value. Like all characteristics that are passed on through natural selection, humour makes us feel better and is good for our mental health. From a physiological perspective, a body of research has shown that laughter gives our bodies a positive workout. It has a stress reducing effect and makes people resilient.

Two sides to the laughing clown

But, as mentioned earlier, humour can be used to both positive (connecting) and negative (alienating) effect. Sarcastic or derisive humour – making others the butt of our jokes – is often contemptuous, hostile and manipulative. This type of humour reveals more about the person who is attacking rather than the person under attack. Sarcasm is really a thinly disguised form of hostility. It shows a lack of respect for the subject and can be hurtful. In contrast, self-deprecating humour is more disarming and inclusive. It involves amusing others at our own expense in a self-disparaging way and suggests humility on the part of the humorist. However, we should keep in mind that using it to excess may suggest underlying feelings of self-doubt, low self-esteem and other forms of anxieties.

When jokes at work backfire

Returning to Jack, the confusion he caused with his colleagues required attention. During a series of leadership coaching sessions to help him better understand himself and his relationship with others, he underwent a 360-degree feedback assessment report on his leadership strengths and weaknesses. The report showed that although he was using humour (most of the time) to good effect, there were unexpected, negative consequences that needed addressing.

To help change his communication style, Jack enlisted the help of an executive coach. He explained to his coach that he thought his use of humour was innocuous and that people understood what he was really trying to say. In response, the coach pointed out that while a good sense of humour was a blessing, it often resulted in crossed signals. Jack needed to become more conscious of the message he was giving.

Humour as defence mechanism

A turning point for helping Jack understand his behaviour was his reflections on his family background. Through deeper exploration of his subconscious, Jack realised he was using humour as a distancing device – as a way to deal with his insecurities and to avoid dealing with conflicting situations. He had a difficult and confusing upbringing. To make his situation emotionally more manageable, humour became his survival strategy.

Turning every stressful life event into a joke became his default mode of coping with his personal life drama. With the help of his coach, Jack began to leverage humour as an asset and to use it more constructively. He was able to recognise when humour was appropriate and advantageous – when he could, with others, make fun of the paradoxes and follies that are part of life.

Manfred Kets de Vries is a distinguished professor of leadership development and organisational change at Insead and the founder of Insead’s Global Leadership Centre.

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