Humor can be a most subtle and effective organizational communication technique. Used wisely, it can help people navigate within power relationships, manage emotional tension, and build cohesive teams. So it’s no surprise that researchers are warming to the subject of fun and humor in the workplace.

In the next post, I’ll highlight a few studies on fun. In this post, let’s see what Heiss (U Vermont) and Carmack (Missouri State U) learned about the use of humor when new employees first enter a work setting. In this case, humor is particularly important in helping individuals make sense of rules and processes  and in giving veterans a chance to socialize newbies and show them the ropes.

The findings by Heiss and Carmack are largely based on observations and interviews of staffers at a university vocational counselling centre. One of the researchers observed the office for two-hour periods three times a week for eight weeks and volunteered at a career fair for 10 hours, resulting in 58 hours of observation.

She found that veterans used humor both aggressively and empathetically. They used humor in aggressive ways to assert power, maintain cultural stability, and preserve group cohesiveness. While aggressive humor was not “we-oriented,” they write in Management Communication Quarterly, its ambiguity allowed employees to avoid some of the negative consequences of addressing problems.

“In essence, the use of aggressive humor created a ‘humor gauntlet’ that newcomers had to complete in order to be part of the group,” they write.

Once newcomers were accepted by the group, they were usually met with what they considered to be friendly and empathetic humor: amusing stories and good-natured practical jokes. By using empathic, humorous storytelling, veterans avoided positioning themselves as superior.

Humor was useful to newcomers as well. It greased the wheels for them to learn about organizational culture and expectations while not embarrassing themselves. Employees “often had to learn through trial and error, observations, and/or asking questions,” the researchers report. “Newcomers were encouraged to ask questions. However, because organizational members were busy, newcomers often felt burdensome or incompetent. Newcomers often asked questions in a joking manner so as to make light of their lack of knowledge or reduce others’ perceptions of the amount of help needed.”

Does this sound like what goes on in organizations you’re a part of?

Sarah N. Heiss and Heather J. Carmack, “Knock, Knock; Who’s There? Making Sense of Organizational Entrance Through Humor.” Management Communication Quarterly (26[1] 106–132)

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