Humor in the Workplace: Why You Need Emotional Intelligence

One of my colleagues starts off his weekly staff meetings with a Mad Lib. “I love to laugh at work,” he said. “But you need to do it in a way so that people don’t think you’re a goofball and can’t tell the difference between sarcasm and your seriousness.”

In fact many people think the best way to start a meeting or to put a classroom or training audience at ease is to begin with a bit of humor.

Q: Why was six scared of seven?

A: Because seven “ate” nine.


I never wanted to believe my dad was stealing from his job as a road worker. But when I got home, all the signs were there.

There are plenty of team meetings where humor would go over poorly, my colleague added, noting he doubted President Obama’s Cabinet sits around a table har-har-ing over a bunch of Mad Libs.

Yet according to a 2012 Forbes article on the importance of humor in the business world, humor boosts productivity, allowing teams to solve problems more quickly. “When something makes us smile or laugh, the feel-good chemical dopamine is dropped into our systems,” the article attributed to Michelle Gielan, cofounder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research, “which turns on all the learning centers in the brain and heightens creativity, productivity, and engagement.”

If things aren’t light, everything is an emergency, even when it’s not, my colleague said. “We are entrusted to use our judgment to know the difference between what’s an emergency and what isn’t in our respective work requirements. Humor gives us perspective and allows us to exercise that judgment.”

And people who are funny may be perceived as more successful as employees, according to Steven Sultanoff, former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, in the Forbes article. “If someone is using humor then they are connecting with people and building relationships, which creates opportunities that other people may not have.”

There isn’t a giant Aha moment here as many of us already appreciate the value of humor in the workplace. The challenge, I think, is to have the emotional intelligence to know when the joke is off-color or offensive, because some of the best ones are, or when your anecdotal comment in the office crosses a line or is just plain awkward and leaves everyone in the room speechless instead of chuckling.

I thought of this earlier this week as I was having lunch with a long table of colleagues.   As lunch conversations tend to meander, we got on the topic of birthdays. One colleague recounted a time when she was with a group comparing who shared their birthdays with the coolest celebrities. She said at one point, a person blurted out, “My birthday is the same day as Hitler’s!”

She said the conversation essentially shut down. As her colleagues began to pull their chairs away from the table and get up to leave, the Hitler birthday buddy just didn’t seem to pick up on the cues that the flavor of her comment left the group with a bad taste in their mouths. It wasn’t necessarily offensive, just bizarre. Lunch was over.

So how do you know when you’ve crossed a line or even turned people off? Being socially aware of your emotions and your actions is just the first step in becoming emotionally intelligent, which is widely believed to be a key leadership quality of successful people at work.

Recently, social media has been circulating Daniel Golman’s short list of competencies to achieving emotional intelligence, the ability to identify and monitor your emotions as well as others’. The list, which first appeared in the New York Times, includes more than becoming self-aware and is worth noting here in its entirety:

  1. Self-Awareness

Realistic self-confidence: You understand your own strengths and limitations; you operate from competence and know when to rely on someone else on the team.

Emotional insight: You understand your feelings. Being aware of what makes you angry, for instance, can help you manage that anger.

  1. Self-Management

Emotional balance: You keep any distressful feelings in check — instead of blowing up at people, you let them know what’s wrong and what the solution is.

Self-motivation: You keep moving toward distant goals despite setbacks.

  1. Empathy

Cognitive and emotional empathy: Because you understand other perspectives, you can put things in ways colleagues comprehend. And you welcome their questions, just to be sure. Cognitive empathy, along with reading another person’s feelings accurately, makes for effective communication.

Good listening: You pay full attention to the other person and take time to understand what they are saying, without talking over them or hijacking the agenda.

  1. Relationship Skills

Compelling communication: You put your points in persuasive, clear ways so that people are motivated as well as clear about expectations.

Team playing: People feel relaxed working with you. One sign: They laugh easily around you.


My colleague’s all-time favorite office joke is to hold up a quarter that was minted before he was born and say, “You see this quarter? It’s 15 years older than I am. But look how much more I’ve grown.” He figures if he doesn’t have the team laughing by this point, he’ll bring out the Mad Libs.

What’s your favorite office joke?


The views expressed here are those of Ms. Walker and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.


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