Humour and Personality in the Workplace

*This blog was originally published by Hogan Assessments

What is something that produces chemicals within the brain as if you are meditating and exercising at the same time, but is HR approved? Humour.1 Humour can be beneficial both outside the workplace and within the workplace. Outside of the workplace, humour improves physical well-being and mental health.2 Inside of the workplace, humour has been shown to reduce the negative effects of workplace stress and enhance job performance. Employee humour also boosts job satisfaction, team cohesion, health, and coping effectiveness, while decreasing burnout and work withdrawal.2 

But what exactly is humour? Is it stand-up comedy at the local club? Is it enjoyed with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn while watching Saturday Night Live? How can humour even be used tastefully within the workplace? Can you use it to get stiff peaks in your meringues? All of these are excellent questions (especially the last one), and we hope to touch on some of them in this wonderfully written blog post.

What Is Humour?
Alas, we do not have any answers to how humour can be used to get stiff peaks in your meringues because meringue behavior is not easy to research from a psychology perspective. Luckily, human behavior is relatively easy to research; however, a definition of humour is sadly not as easy to understand as the jokes that come with it.3

One of the keys to understanding and defining humour is the distinction between humour and sense of humour. Humour is a behavior or communication style that is mutually amusing, whereas sense of humour has been defined as a quasi-personality characteristic or cognitive ability.2 Another way of thinking about the differences is that humour is a behavior and sense of humour is a characteristic or trait.4

Types of Humour Styles
We will focus on the model that served as the foundation of the Humour Styles Questionnaire (HSQ),5 which was used in research at Hogan. This theory categorizes humor into four different humour styles:

  • Affiliative humour – This is a positive humour style that is nonthreatening and nonhostile toward others.5 An individual who scores high on Affiliative humour tends to create relationships and reduce interpersonal tension by telling jokes, saying funny things, or just being witty.6
  • Self-enhancing humour – This is a positive humour style that is nonthreatening and nonhostile toward oneself.5 Someone who uses this humour style might try to twist the situation to lighten the mood after something bad happens to them. Individuals who score higher on this humour style tend to maintain a humorous and positive outlook on life, even during challenging times.5
  • Self-defeating humour – This is a negative humour style that is threatening and hostile toward the person using it.5 While this is a negative humour style, it can be used strategically to reduce the status and power distance between a leader and their followers.6
  • Aggressive humor – This is a negative humour style that is threatening and hostile towards others.5 Individuals higher on this humour style tend to use humour without any regard for others’ feelings.7

You may have noticed there are some common denominators across these humour styles. All four humour styles can be categorized into a two-by-two matrix with one side of the matrix representing the direction of humour that is being used (self-directed versus other-directed) and the other side of the matrix representing the impact of the humour (positive versus negative).8

                   Other-Directed          Self-Directed
Positive           Affiliative               Self-Enhancing
Negative        Aggressive               Self-Defeating

Successful Humour is Relational and Situational
So, should an individual just stay away from using negative forms of humour? The answer to this question is the typical “it depends” answer. It really depends on the context and the relationship between the individuals. Within the leadership realm, specifically, both positive and negative humour have been found to be good (or bad) for a leader and follower, depending on the relationship between the two.8 If the two have built rapport and trust, then either positive or negative forms of humour can be successful.9 But if the relationship between the two individuals is not healthy and trustful, then both positive and negative forms of humour will likely fail and quite possibly do more harm than good.

Humour is subjective. An individual using humour may intend to use it for one purpose, but the result of the humour may not go as planned. An individual may use a positive form of humour with the intent to build a relationship with a new coworker, but if the new coworker is not receptive to the humour, then the humour has failed.

The key to successful humour is how the humour is received, not the intent. It’s very similar to how we view personality. We focus on how others are likely to see you in the workplace (your reputation) rather than how you see yourself (your identity). Using a humor style in certain situations could result in a negative impact on your reputation in the workplace, regardless of how you see yourself.

For example, using self-enhancing humour could lead to people viewing you as overconfident. Or maybe you use an aggressive type of humour without a strong relationship with an individual and they start to see you as being inappropriate and unprofessional in the workplace. Years of research has determined that reputation matters more than identity when it comes to workplace outcomes. What this means is that someone can think they are using humour to their benefit, but others may not perceive it positively — and that’s what really matters.

Context is the other key factor for using humour well at work. If you’re a stand-up comedian in a bar, then you will likely be in an environment where some risky types of humour could be used, but if you’re a judge in a courtroom, you may want to steer clear of some types of humour.

The use of humour can be a fine line to walk, especially with humour’s subjectivity and strong potential for causing offense (especially when dabbling in negative humor types). Being aware of your context and environment is key for the successful use of humour. In addition to the context of the environment, being aware of which humour style you are using is important. Having that awareness can prevent you from unintentionally using a form of humour that may not be appropriate in your current context.

The Role of Personality in Humour Style
At PBC, we know that behaviors and personality characteristics are related. An individual’s personality will be a driver for their behavior, but through strategic self-awareness, feedback, and targeted development, people can modify their behavior. Strategic self-awareness has three components:

  • Understanding our own strengths and opportunities for change and growth
  • Understanding how our strengths and challenges relate to those of others
  • Understanding how to adapt our behavior to increase our effectiveness

To use humour effectively in the workplace, individuals must have some degree of strategic self-awareness. They should understand their own humour style, when that humour style is effective, and when they need to flex away from their natural humour style to be successful. Individuals who do that are more likely to garner a reputation of being influential and gregarious in the organization, which can help them ultimately become more successful.

The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), Hogan Development Survey (HDS), and Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) are excellent resources that can assist with becoming more strategically self-aware of your own personality. If you are interested in learning how these assessments relate to humor style (or just have some free time on your calendar), register for Hogan’s upcoming webinar.

This post was authored by Cody Warren, talent analytics consultant, and Jessie McClure, corporate solutions consultant.

For a full list of references, please refer to the original Hogan blog.


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