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Humour, Seriously: Why Humour Is A Superpower At Work And In Life

As the title suggests, this book about humor has a serious side too. Humor in the workplace is often nonexistent, yet levity is one of the fastest and surest ways to forge strong connections, boost creativity, and improve productivity. As Aaker and Bagdonas show us throughout their book, humor in the workplace really can be a superpower that creates spaces where people can think freely, speak openly and try new approaches to old (and new) problems.

Based on six years of research and studies involving more than 1.5 million people across 166 countries, the authors answer the how and whys of humor in the workplace, showing where it can differ across cultures and through different stages of life. Humor is not an innate ability. Fortunately, just like intelligence, creativity, and emotional intelligence, it can be learned and fostered. In doing so, we can transform our interactions in the workplace, forge more substantial and deeper connections with others, and signal that we truly see the people around us. The benefits that humor can bring to our lives are in ever-increasing demand; learning how and when to use levity can propel us professionally and bring new purpose to our days. Aaker and Bagdonas

The Mechanics Of Humor

Humor has a remarkable impact on how we see others. Those who show a sense of humor are perceived as having a higher status and are more likely to be voted into leadership roles. Playful workplace cultures allow teams to thrive and mutually support each other, even when times get rough. The science behind these facts points to our neurochemistry. When we laugh, a cocktail of hormones is released by the brain. Dopamine makes us feel happier, oxytocin prompts us to feel more trusting, and endorphins that engender euphoria feelings are released with each chuckle. At the same time, cortisol, our stress hormone, is concurrently lowered in our systems.

In a moment of laughter, we are charmed and disarmed by the person evoking that response from us. Laughter provides the link between humor and psychological safety. Just the anticipation of laughter decreases our cortisol and epinephrine levels by 39 and 70 percent, respectively. A spark of human connection is ignited when we laugh or smile, and both people in the interaction become more inclined to share thoughts, feelings, and intimate details about who they are. In short, humor is the fastest path to openness and vulnerability.

Not everyone has the same style of humor. One of the key reasons we leave joking aside when we come to work is that we’re afraid we may inadvertently offend someone with our particular brand of laughter. It’s a fair concern; just as surely as a shared chuckle can strengthen relationships, inappropriate or aggressive humor can weaken ties and make workplace conflicts challenging to resolve. Learning the four different humor styles and expanding your range is one way to avoid accidentally upsetting someone with your kind of levity. Even so, faux pas will happen so, and it’s equally important to be able to spot when we’ve crossed the line and know how to recover from humor fail. The authors of this book have us covered on both counts.

Whether your preferred style of humor is subtle, aggressive, expressive, or affiliative, because humor is a skill we can all build upon, it’s possible to develop our range and thus be able to call upon the right kind of humor for any given situation. When used well, humor helps us learn more deeply and enhance our right-brained creativity and lateral thinking modes. These benefits alone make levity at work ever more important now and into the future.

Observation and taking the time to notice the absurdities and oddities around us are foundational for developing humor and fun. At the heart of all humor is a kernel of truth, and all humor contains surprise and misdirection – this is where punchlines get their punch. Thankfully, humor at work isn’t about laboring to create side-splitting jokes for our workmates; it’s more about making more human connections in our everyday interactions. When we are open to doing this and find lightheartedness in our daily exchanges, we become more productive, effective, and happy - and far less bored. Humor can bring richness to the quality of our professional relationships and organizational cultures if only we are brave enough to let it.

Leading with Levity

From persuasion to pointing out the elephant in the room and making a difficult ask, humor can increase our chances of a positive response and even make a ‘yes’ more favorable. Leaders who use levity build trust within their organizations. Organizations with high levels of leadership trust are 32 times more likely to take risks that could benefit the company, 11 times more likely to see higher levels of innovation than their serious competitors, and six times more likely to achieve higher performance levels. We can use levity to create a competitive advantage.

Because we are naturally inclined to mirror the behavior of the highest-status individual in a group, leaders are in a unique position to influence workplace culture. By keeping things light and playful, they create the optimal conditions for great work. By walking the levity line, leaders can lay fertile ground for creative thinking, initiate the circumstances needed for psychological safety, and widen their workforce’s perspective.

However, using humor at work can be difficult the higher one rises in an organization—the lines of appropriate humor shift with rising status. What may have been acceptable humor in middle management is no longer palatable when coming from a senior leader, particularly if their natural humor style tends to make fun of others higher up the chain. The higher one rises, the fewer people there are to joke in this way. In these cases, self-deprecating humor is often the next best option for leaders.

The upside of this switch is that self-deprecating humor from leaders is often taken as a sign of confidence and projects humility. This style of humor can help a leader’s relatability and enhance status. However, when people of lower status use self-deprecating humor, it can come across as insecurity and erode other’s confidence in them. Regardless of status, it is wise to follow some basic rules when making light of situations and bringing humor to the table: never make another person’s identity the prop, plot point, or punchline for your humor.

Strengthening Company Culture With A Smile

When used appropriately, humor and levity are powerful tools for bringing boldness, authenticity, and joy to the workplace. Leaders who are uncomfortable using humor themselves can tap into the humor of those around them – celebrating people, moments and enabling others to provide humor can help define and highlight company values long after the actual moment has passed.

Working with employees who naturally bring a sense of play to work can co-create cultures of levity. Leaders who are uncomfortable with humor themselves should look out for three types of employees and support their ability to bring humor to the organization. Instigators, Culture Carriers, and Hidden Gems can all work together to build a culture of levity and play. When people are comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, their sense of humor will come too.

Lots of humor and levity in good times solidifies relationships to make it easier to call on others through difficult times. Balancing gravity and levity is a powerful strategy for building winning teams with public displays of humor from leaders and colleagues. When done, this sets the tone for organizational cultures and provides tacit permission for others to follow the lead.


Whether shifting a team’s mindset, looking for new insights into business challenges or simply building workplace trust, the authors of ‘Humor, Seriously’ clearly show that humor and levity are essential tools. With them, we can forge human connections, strengthen authentic bonds and improve performance in good times while fostering the resilience needed to weather the bad. Punctuating our working day with moments of joy is a beneficial and enjoyable way to get ahead in business.