Published May 03, 2016
Do your team meetings seem to be lacking in effectiveness? Try adding an ounce of humor. A new study from the VU University Amsterdam and the University of Nebraska at Omaha suggests humorous meetings lead to better communication and new ideas.
The researchers attended regular team meetings of two medium-sized industrial organizations in Southern Germany and videotaped the teams’ behavior, signaling out patterns of humor-laughter-humor chains. Meaning when someone told a joke, others would chime in with a few more cracks until the laughter finally died down.
The researchers noticed after the humor-laughter chain had concluded, the lines of communication appeared to be more open and teams were significantly more likely to propose new ideas and solutions and ask constructive questions. The higher the number of humor-laughter chains during meetings, the better the teams’ supervisors rated the team – both immediately after the meeting and even two years after working with the team.
In previous studies, humor has also been heralded for its potential to facilitate group communication and boost employee morale. Previous research has shown we’re 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re in a group than when we’re on our own, showing that humor can play a strong role in group bonding, thereby boosting team performance. “From an evolutionary perspective, one could argue that humans have developed humor and laughter as group behaviors because they promote social bonding and group cohesion,” says Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock, the study’s lead author.
“Our analysis shows that humor patterns trigger functional, ‘healthy’ group behaviors during the team interaction process,” says Lehmann-Willenbrock. Humor-laughter patterns were often followed by positive socio-emotional statements such as offering praise – “Good Suggestion!” or encouraging participation, “What do you think, Tom?” Positive procedural statements that encouraged the team to re-focus (“Let’s get back to our topic now”) were also more likely to occur after a humor-laughter pattern. These positive statements meant team members were more likely to come up with new ideas, showing a boost in creativity and a more productive meeting overall.
Not all types of humor are effective. The study focused only on well-intentioned, positive humor that can be enjoyed by everyone present. While practical jokes and sarcastic humor may elicit laughter, Lehmann-Willenbrock says these are less likely to be beneficial for the team climate and team performance. “Disparaging or sarcastic humor in team interactions, aimed at criticizing others, has shown negative relationships with team productivity,” she says. Although sarcasm was sometimes followed by laughter, the research showed no correlation between sarcastic backbiting comments and team performance.
Lehmann-Willenbrock says leaders can improve their team meetings by serving as positive examples and introducing positive humor to the meetings themselves. They can also encourage humor patterns by encouraging team members’ humor and laughter, allowing the team to interject humor into the meetings rather than rigidly following a meeting agenda, allowing for no deviation whatsoever. Creative industries stand to benefit the most from humorous meetings. “Organizations who rely on their employees’ creative input should consider putting humor at the core of their organizational values,” says Lehmann-Willenbrock. Turns out laughter really is the best medicine.