Humor, Seriously Book Discusses Power of Workplace Humor : The Indicator from Planet Money Everyone enjoys a good laugh, but could humor be the secret to success in the workplace?

The Power of Humor

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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Paddy Hirsch. I'm joined by Stacey Vanek Smith, of course. And Stacey, we like to have a bit of a laugh here on THE INDICATOR, wouldn't you say?


Yeah, we do. We do like a laugh - agree.

HIRSCH: I mean, it's not that we don't take our job seriously, but we do believe that a little levity is actually a helpful thing, kind of part of our brand. I mean, you know, it's the dismal science and...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) We do what we can to make it a little less dismal. That is true.

HIRSCH: Some dismal offset. But you know, we might not feel that way if we were, say, a legal company or an accounting company. Our customers might not appreciate the fact that we're having a bit of a giggle when we're involved in such - and I'm using quotation marks here - serious business.

VANEK SMITH: You want a very serious accountant. You don't want your lawyer, like, playing practical jokes. No, no, no - agree.

HIRSCH: Well, that's what I would've thought. But it turns out that Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas don't agree with this, necessarily. They both teach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and they've just come out with a book called "Humor, Seriously." There's a comma in there - humor, comma, seriously.


HIRSCH: And we're going to talk to them about the value of humor in the corporate workplace after the break.

VANEK SMITH: Seriously?

HIRSCH: (Laughter).

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas are a professor and lecturer, respectively, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. They've just written a book called "Humor, Seriously."

So Jennifer, why don't we start by - well, why don't you start by telling me the value of humor in the workplace?

JENNIFER AAKER: First, in leadership, when people use humor at work, they are 23% more respected and are seen as more competent and more confident. It doesn't even need to be good humor, just not inappropriate humor. The bar is so low. And for employee retention, employees who rate their bosses as having a sense of humor, any sense of humor, they report to be 15% more satisfied and engaged in their jobs. And even in sales, studies show that people pay, on average, 18% more if the seller includes a lighthearted line as part of their final offer, like, you know, my final offer is X, and I'll throw in my pet frog. Again, the humor doesn't have to be good. I'm just - it just - anything.

HIRSCH: So what do you think is the cost of not using humor if you're a corporation?

AAKER: Well, not only would it reduce creativity; it also reduces engagement and retention. So the costs are significant.

HIRSCH: All right. So I was thinking to myself as I read this book, if I was a corporation or a senior manager in a corporation, I was thinking - you know, I was running what the return on investment might be. And I think Steve (ph) touched on a couple of things - creativity, better relationships with clients, productivity. Is there any other - are there any other things that you could think of that would provide a decent return on investment for an investment in humor for companies?

NAOMI BAGDONAS: So just to be clear, you want more than retention, innovation, leadership and selling products. You want more from us, Paddy?

AAKER: Paddy, we'll give you another one. We'll give you health. The cost of health, mental well-being and physical well-being are enormous for companies. And humor actually makes you not only healthier; it makes you live longer. So one large-scale Norwegian study conducted over the course of 15 years found that people with a sense of humor have a 30% better chance of survival if severe disease strikes, and they live eight years longer. So laughter literally makes us more physically resilient, which has bottom-line effects for companies.

HIRSCH: You know, I know - I've met so many people in my career - my careers, in fact - who are just not fans of humor. They're like, look. I just want to do my job, get paid and go home. But how do you deal if you're a manager? How do you deal with someone who has that kind of vibe and feeling about them?

BAGDONAS: Well, you're hitting on one of Dick Costolo's biggest pieces of advice, the former CEO of Twitter. Dick says, if you want to have more humor at work, don't tell jokes. Don't try to be funny. Just look for more reasons to laugh.

AAKER: It's this idea of actually being human, not about being humorous. And this is - the reality is right now that this is more important than ever because, you know, our work is much more technology-mediated and, therefore, the harder it is to be - to bring out our humanity and a sense of humor at work. We subconsciously adapt to our medium. And when we're constantly communicating through technology, it's easy to sound like a robot.

HIRSCH: So it's more - really in a way, it's more about sense of humor than being funny.

AAKER: Absolutely. And it's also about being more generous with laughter - so not trying to be funny, just looking for moments to laugh generously. And the entire texture of life changes when you're able to live this way.

BAGDONAS: And another thing that we try and tell people to do is to try and create small moments of joy for someone else. And especially if you're having trouble finding it in your own life right now, just look to create a little moment for someone. And it can be a really small gesture - not a joke, but, you know, changing your virtual background to a picture from a fun shared experience or, you know, leaving a nice Post-it on your fridge for the person that you cohabitate with. But this focus on creating joy for someone else helps take the pressure off, you know, I need to be funny. I need to look funny myself. And it's more about, how can I focus on someone else and elevate them?

HIRSCH: Well, here's - I've got a - I'm going to tell a little joke now. It's actually not really that much of a joke. Somebody once told me that humor is a bit like cocaine. Like, a lot of people enjoy it. Some people get very rich from it, but it can get you into serious trouble, right? And this seems particularly pertinent in the workplace now where there seem to be so many third rails of discussion. So it seems like the smart person would leave humor behind when going into work, you know, just to be safe.

BAGDONAS: Right - humor and cocaine, ideally.

HIRSCH: Leave the baggy behind. Yeah.

AAKER: You know, there's ways in which you can think about how you temper humor or use humor in ways - especially in new environments where you don't know each other or there's, you know, power asymmetry that you can offset these risks. And this is really important because, you know, for example, derogatory humor can perpetuate prejudice and impact behaviors by those with prejudiced views. So you know, for example, never making a person's identity the target of your joke is one sort of small tip.

BAGDONAS: Yeah. And a few other tips that we hear from comedians - number one, don't punch down. So never make fun of someone who's lower in status or lower in the ranks from your position of power. Number two, context switching - so obviously, what works at the dinner table isn't always going to work, you know, around your office table - so really taking a moment and saying, hold on a minute. Yes, I would say this in front of friends, but am I going to say it here? And so it's really important to understand all humor is not created equal. All humor cannot be delivered by everyone and land in the same way.

HIRSCH: Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas from the Stanford Graduate School of Business - they've both written a book called "Humor, Seriously."

Thank you very much for joining me today.

BAGDONAS: Thank you.

AAKER: Thank you so much for having us.

HIRSCH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Dave Blanchard and Sean Saldana, was fact-checked by Sam Cai. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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