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Using Humor in the Office: When It Works, When It Backfires

Should you crack jokes in the office? According to Wharton research, a sense of humor, when deftly and appropriately used, can enhance workplace status and perception of one’s competence. That’s one of the findings of the research paper, “Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status,” by Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions; doctoral candidate Brad Bitterly, and Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard University assistant professor.

They discovered that the successful use of humor signals confidence and competence, which in turn increases the joke teller’s status. But what can backfire is the use of inappropriate jokes or becoming the ‘class clown.’ “Although signaling confidence typically increases status, telling inappropriate jokes signals low competence and the combined effect of high confidence and low competence harms status,” the paper said.

Knowledge@Wharton recently sat down with Schweitzer and Bitterly to talk about their findings. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell me about your research.

Brad Bitterly: Our research is on the relationship between humor and status. Humor pervades our daily interactions, yet it’s been largely ignored by the prior organizational research. In this work, we look at how it can really significantly shape and influence the way we perceive others.

When we look around, we see some examples of humor going really well and it causes us to perceive the joke teller as more confident, competent and higher in status. For example, the night before Dick Costolo joined Twitter as the chief operating officer, he sent out a tweet that said, “First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Step one, undermine CEO, consolidate power.” A year after he sent out that tweet, he ended up becoming CEO of Twitter.

So we can see examples of where someone uses humor and they rise to the top of the hierarchy, but we also see cases where people attempt to use, say a really inappropriate joke, and just plummet to the bottom. And the focus of our work is trying to understand what it is about humor that can cause someone to either rise or fall in status.

“Humor can be a really effective tool for increasing status.” –Brad Bitterly

Knowledge@Wharton: What are your paper’s key takeaways?

Maurice Schweitzer: Humor is risky. Humor can signal competence and confidence and increase our status. But sometimes humor can fail because it’s inappropriate, because it’s just not very funny or because we overdo it. In those cases, we signal low competence and that harms our status. And in some cases we’ve seen people get fired because of it.

What we find is that whether or not the humor goes well, the use of humor, the attempted use, always signals confidence. I’m a confident person, I’m telling a joke. But the competence, how competent I am, really matters. And that’s what swings the use of humor from being effective or ineffective.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does someone get that characteristic of being humorous? Should they go out and take classes? What should they do?

Bitterly: Since it is a really important skill set in our daily lives and a really important managerial skill, I think it could help for people to try to take classes. They could do improv classes that could get them more familiar, more comfortable with delivering a joke. I think part of the difficulty to begin with is just trying to get that confidence — that way, you feel comfortable delivering it, even an appropriate joke.

Schweitzer: It’s also something we can look for in selection. So when you screen people, we might look for somebody that is at least comfortable with humor. Again, we don’t want the class clown, but for somebody who’s facile with it, it can really be a strategic advantage.

Knowledge@Wharton: What conclusions, if any, surprised you?

Bitterly: One of the conclusions that I found particularly surprising was in our second study we found that someone who effectively used humor, they were not only perceived to be more confident, competent and higher in status, they were even more likely to be elected as a group leader for a subsequent task. So here