In today's competitive global economy where corporate success hinges on productivity and innovation, many companies are toying with alternative means for motivating employees. From onsite pool tables and ball pits to free haircuts and subsidized massages, employers are thinking outside the box in an effort to get workers to do the same. My suggestion for improving employee morale and productivity is far simpler and less costly: Cancel all meetings. As Americans collectively spend time in an estimated 11 million meetings each day, I'm guessing there are a few other people out there who might agree with me.
While it is unlikely that we can eradicate meetings altogether, new research by Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock and Joseph Allen suggests there might be a way to make meetings less onerous and more useful: a good laugh. Humor, it seems, can enhance creativity, elevate collegiality, and improve long term job performance. Fun meetings, apparently, can be better meetings.
The benefits of humor as an individual coping mechanism and a social lubricant are well established. Humor helps people cope with pain and tragedy, reduces social conflict and promotes group cohesion. But Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen explored whether humor in the workplace might also help a corporation boost its bottom line. In a longitudinal investigation of team efficiency and productivity, they evaluated humor patterns in the regular team meetings of two industrial organizations in Germany, and then examined short-term and long-term outcomes.
To assess humor patterns, Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen first videotaped 54 different team meetings, each roughly forty-five minutes long, that collectively involved over 350 employees. If you find work meetings to be arduous and dull, you would not want to be on this research team, for the investigators then watched all of those meeting tapes and coded the team interactions. They were particularly interested in positive humor patterns, that is, upbeat, funny remarks followed by laughter. They intentionally did not include negative humor (sarcasm, put-downs) or failed humor (e.g., a joke followed by silence). After coding the humor patterns, they then evaluated what happened after the laughter.
You might expect humor to derail or distract a team, leading team members to be less efficient or effective. You would be wrong. Using a lag sequential analysis to understand temporal sequences in behavior, Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen found that within the meetings, humor patterns triggered problem-solving behaviors (e.g., what do you think about this approach?), procedural suggestions (e.g., let's talk about our next step), and goal orientation (e.g., we should target this issue). Humor patterns also promoted supportive behaviors like praise and encouragement, and led to new ideas and solutions.
Critically, this positive work environment translated into long term gains. Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen asked supervisors, who were not present at these meetings, to rate team performance immediately after the meeting and again two years later. These supervisors reported whether the teams met or exceeded their quantitative targets, and whether or not they showed continual improvement in their professional efficiency. Humor patterns in the original team meetings were positively related to team performance both immediately and over time.
It's not all fun and games, however, as Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen discovered an important limit to the benefits of humor. Laughter is not the best medicine when perceived job security is low. When employees felt their jobs might be at risk, humor patterns during work meetings did not facilitate job performance in either the short or the long run. The threat associated with high-risk climates may lead employees to perceive humor as a wasteful expenditure of time, thus negating its social and professional advantages. Ironically, it is precisely in these tough economic times - when stress is high and job security is low - that the competitive edge cultivated by humor under low-stress conditions is needed most.
There are other limits, as well, to the study. Ninety percent of the employees involved in the team meetings were male, few (less than 5%) had a college degree, and most had a long tenure with their organization (the average time with the company was nearly 11 years). It is not clear whether the same benefits would derive from humor for teams that were more heterogeneous, or in corporations with lower employee tenure and higher fluctuation of team members. In addition, as noted earlier, supervisors did not attend these team meetings. Employees may be less inclined to crack jokes, and to laugh at them, when the boss is present (unless, of course, it is the boss who is making the jokes).
Despite these limitations, employers can learn from this. Managers can acknowledge that humor may be beneficial, particularly in situations where employees perceive high job security. Managers thus might consider ways to make team members feel safe about their jobs. Although managers shouldn't mislead employees about their job security, they could make an effort to highlight instances when job security is high. Supervisors might also encourage teams to meet in their absence. This bold step might elevate the level of humor in meetings, thereby fostering collegiality among team members and leading to better performance. Besides, what manager would mind missing a meeting or two?
Cindi May is a Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston. She explores mechanisms for optimizing cognitive function in college students, older adults, and individuals with intellectual disabilities. She is also the project director for a TPSID grant from the Department of Education, which promotes the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in postsecondary education.
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