Can humour get you ahead at work?

How psychology can impact our productivity and success at work.
07 November 2017

Interview with 

Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton University


The evidence is that humour can be a powerful motivator. And so can “trash talking” - where people make purposefully challenging or disparaging remarks about performance, which can help to boost productivity. But both can also backfire. Michael Wheeler spoke with Maurice Schweitzer who studies these approaches. Please note that this item does refer to a real-life example of an unacceptable use of humour that some might find offensive...

Maurice - While some people are doing things just right and others are getting it flat wrong. I’ll give you one example from my research investigating humour: people view us as more confident, warmer, more likeable, and more competent when we engage with humour, and they’re more likely to be selected as a leader. Dick Costolo was the CEO of Twitter and he was a standup comic earlier in his career, and he credits his sense of humour for helping him rise to power.

But there are other people who’ve had a disastrous outcome. I can give you one example of that where there was a PR representative who became infamous for her tweets.

She was flying to New York to visit family in South Africa. Her first tweet on this trip read: “Wierd German dude you’re in first class. It’s 2014, get some deodorant enter monologue as I inhaled B.O., thank God for pharmaceuticals.”

She lands in London and then tweets: “Chilly, cucumber sandwiches, bad teeth, back in London.”

And then her next tweet that crosses the line reads: “Going to Africa, hope I don’t get AIDS - just kidding I’m white.”

By the time she landed in South Africa there were protests and her family were saying that we don’t abide by this sort of behaviour. They’d already been contacted by media and she ends up losing her job.

Michael - Is there anything that we can learn from experiments about how to try and employ humour in a professional setting?

Maurice - Yes. From my research, what I’ve found is that people are often afraid of telling jokes that fall flat, but it turns out that’s not so costly. If you’re really “on the fence” you could tell something really quite edgy, or not very edgy. Go with the one that’s not so edgy and you might get a chuckle and, if you don’t, it not that big a deal.

Michael - What would be some other examples of things that you have tried to understand by conducting experiments?

Maurice - I’ve some recent research investigating “trash talking” - competitive and incivil communication. We brought in 178 undergraduate students and they would sit at computer terminals and just text back and forth with a partner.

Then we described the effort based task. We tell them you’re going to compete and you’re going to have to do things like count the number of letters in a sentence, and whoever counts more letters accurately is going to win a dollar. We then had a confederate that took it over and said “hey, it looks like we’ll be competing against each other in the next task, so whoever wins gets the bonus money.” That’s the neutral confederate.

And the trash talking condition, we start off the same way. “Hey, it looks like we’ll be competing against each other in the next task.” But then it transitions to “I’m just taking that bonus money you’re definitely going to lose.” And then “I’m smarter than you, I’m faster than you, I’m going to beat you like a rented mule.” The participants who received that trash talking message end up performing much better. A lot of effort based tasks, you see performance go way up.

Michael - Yeah. I can imagine it’s the type of thing that wouldn’t suit everyone though. It might work for some people but not for others. Have you gained any insights into anything that might be a little bit more generalisable?

Maurice - I have related work looking at anxiety in the workplace. Anxiety is negative; over-focused on what happens if things go badly. One of the things that we found is that you can change how you feel by saying “I’m excited.” Excitement is also a high activation, a high arousal emotion, but it’s focused on the ways in which things could go well. We had people say “I am excited” before they would sing and we had a Wi karaoke machine that scores singing. We had them deliver a short presentation, we had them take math tests across different experiments and we found that when people convince themselves that they were excited in these high pressure moments, they actually performed demonstrably better.

Michael - I’ve always been given the advice if I’m doing something like a presentation or something that could provoke anxiety to calm down. Is that good advice to give people?

Maurice - Yeah, that’s a great question. That advice is not nearly as good as: get excited, think about how great things would be if that presentation goes really well. The heart rate will stay high but if we focus on those opportunities we’ll engage better and we’ll basically harness that energy in a way that’s going to give us a high energy, constructive, effective presentation, where calming down doesn’t seem to work at all.


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