I once had a boss who had scolded our team: “Now’s not the time to be seen laughing.” Times were tough and it was his hunch that the optics of a team cracking up might not look like they were earnestly endeavoring to turn things round.
But it turns out that humor is a very powerful tool in the workplace. Evidence suggests that it builds trust, forges bonds among colleagues, helps us cope with stress, and inspires creativity and problem solving. In short, laughter is the secret weapon for building great teams.
Psychologist Robert Provine has taken a keen interest in laughter as humankind’s way to synchronize with each other, particularly in the workplace. Just as birds sing to each other, or dogs in neighboring backyards bark at each other, or wolves howl together, so humans laugh to connect with one another, to achieve synchronization.
“Laughter is the quintessential human social signal. Laughter is about relationships … Think of the last time you sat in an audience, laughing and letting waves of laughter wash over you,” Provine wrote. “A pleasant experience — one of life’s best. But consider now the primal nature of the animal chorus and the way the members of an audience synchronize their noises.”
What Provine is talking about here is not about laughing because a joke is funny. It’s about laughing as a form of social bonding and group coordination.
Provine studied and recorded over a thousand laughter episodes in offices. And what he discovered was that laughter wasn’t triggered by humor or hilarious jokes but by seemingly innocuous comments:
“I’ll see you guys later.” “We can handle this.” “I think I’m done.”
“I told you so.” “There you go.” “Must be nice.”
Laughter here wasn’t a response to humor (nor was it meant sarcastically or facetiously). It was a human means to warm a room, to lift the mood, to create a sense of connection. Just as birds in a forest join one another in song, so we laugh together to come together.
And, by the same token, it indicates that we feel we’re in a safe and secure environment. Professor Sophie Scott from University College London points out that scientists have observed that many mammals exhibit laughter-type reactions but that these can be easily stopped by a negative stimulus.
“Rats stop laughing if they feel anxious,” she said. “Humans do the same thing.”
On the other hand, a moment of laughter is an indication that we feel relaxed and safe, that we can afford to let our protective guard down. Or, as Professor Scott put it: “It’s a sign if people are laughing that they’re not in that anxious state. It’s a marker that the group is in a good place.”
Scott also points to a link between humor and stress: “There is literature on workplace humor for professions that have quite stressful jobs like doctors, police, and nurses. They tend to be characterized by quite dark humor that’s quite exclusive. If you’re not part of that group you can be surprised they’re laughing at that. But for that group it works because it’s just a reason to share laughter in situations where they need to make it better.”
An inability to laugh suggests that there may be something wrong: that people feel wary of others, that they don’t trust them, that they don’t feel they can risk letting their guard down.
Former FBI director James Comey observed that he found it remarkable that he’d never seen President Trump laugh. For Comey, laughter in a leader is a signal of openness and a willingness to show vulnerability: “The mark of a great leader is a combination of things that seem contradictory: enough confidence to be humble.”
Insecure people, by contrast, “can’t take joy in the achievements of the people around them and a marker of that balance between confidence and humility is humor. If you are insecure you cannot laugh. Engaging in a humorous encounter is a risk for an insecure leader because I might have to acknowledge you, that you’ve said something funny that I didn’t say.” Comey recalled that he’d seen Presidents Bush and Obama use humor to relax people, “to get to the truth.”
There’s something else to bear in mind, too: The relaxation brought about by laughter opens our minds to creative thinking. John Kounios from Drexel University and Mark Beeman from Northwestern University invited volunteers to watch a video of Robin Williams delivering comedy and then asked them to solve a series of tricky logic puzzles. They discovered that a short laugh improved people’s puzzle-solving ability by 20%.
Why should this be the case? Well, it appears that laughter triggers the superior anterior temporal gyrus — an area of the brain, just above the right ear, associated with connecting distantly linked ideas. When rigid concentration isn’t the answer, it would appear that the distraction caused by laughter can prove invaluable.
Laughter, then, performs numerous functions. It builds trust, it helps us bond with one another, it creates sync. And as our creative guards come down, it helps us have better ideas. Teams who laugh and joke together tend to be better able to open up and share challenges with each other — which is particularly important for coping with stress and enhancing creative problem solving. So much is clear.
So how do we unlock these benefits of laughter in our workplaces? Provine’s suggestion is that we should try to adopt a “laugh-ready attitude”: “You can voluntarily choose to laugh more by lowering your threshold for amusement,” he argued. “Just be willing and prepared to laugh.”
And one of the ways he suggests that we do this is to arrange more social events — meetings and gatherings in your company intended simply to get people together.
The critical thing is to find something that works for your team — and stick to it. Former head of digital at BBC Radio 1 Andy Puleston told me that one ritual the station observed was epic, funny, emotion-filled send-off speeches. Andy would spend time gathering memories, jokes, and photos from teammates and coworkers to give a fully rounded tribute to the leaver. Through those tributes everyone in the team would be more vividly aware of what they were part of; Andy said the room was always filled with “a lot of laughter.”
In straitened economic times, the notion of prioritizing discussion and laughter as one of the most important things to do as a team might seem superfluous and trivial — if not to yourself, then to others. But if people say as much to you, remind them of the numerous benefits. Maybe next time inspiration strikes, it will find you laughing.
This article first appeared on Business Insider.