Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Transcript: The power of making people laugh at work

Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing at the University of Colorado

Karl Moore

This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Talking Management for The Globe and Mail. Today I am delighted to speak to Peter McGraw who is a professor of Marketing at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Good morning, Peter.

Peter McGraw – Good morning.

Story continues below advertisement

Karl Moore – Peter, you are up here for the Just For Laughs festival, and you have done a lot of very interesting work on humour, where do you see the place of humour at work? Is there a place for humour at work in North America?

Peter McGraw – In North America, certainly. I think for an employee that is something that they actually care about. They want to try to enjoy their work and humour is certainly one of those things that make -- not just work -- but life more enjoyable, more fun, and happier. One of the benefits of humour in the workplace, besides the fact that it brings enjoyment, is that it can help smooth conflict and can help people give criticisms to one another, it can help assuage some misunderstandings. So being adept at creating humour is a very beneficial thing for both employees and for bosses.

Karl Moore – We love it when we get humour right, but sometimes we blow it and it makes things worse. Do you have any thoughts on guidelines or suggestions for how to use humour at work then?

Peter McGraw – I think that humour can't be pursued at all costs. There are certainly going to be topics that have to be off limits and these are the kind of typical HR list of things that should be off the topics – sex, race and issues like that. I think, however, it goes beyond just a list of things that are inappropriate to joke about – it really is about creating a culture that creates a safe space, a playful atmosphere, that allows people to fail. You have to risk failing to make people laugh.

Karl Moore – I think humour is – well, I guess I would like to ask you what humour is – but a part of it is that it pushes the boundaries, which gets you into trouble, but that is almost the nature of comedy isn't it?

Peter McGraw – I think fundamentally humour is a positive thing. In our lab, the Humor Research Lab, we define it in three ways – we define it as an emotional reaction, the positive emotion of amusement, or some people call it mirth, a cognitive reaction, a judgment, "hey, that's funny," and a behavioural reaction, laughter. So all three of those things make up this concept of humour and although it is a positive thing we really believe that it has its roots in potentially negative experiences, in the things in the world that are threatening or wrong or unsettling. So inherent in creating humour is you focus on something potentially bad and if you aren't able to make it okay, or as we say benign, if you aren't able to create this benign violation then you might fail by creating a violation and upsetting people.

Karl Moore – So how do you work your way through that minefield of not offending but allowing people to enjoy the humour of life?

Story continues below advertisement

Peter McGraw – This is a really complex skill that takes years of develop and some people seem to do it more naturally then others. I think that the idea really is that you just have to try – if you don't try you aren't going to create a humorous episode, to have some fun with a colleague or a boss. Some of it is having an organization that allows that to happen, and encourages it and doesn't squash the person who tries and who dances on that line and may go a little bit over.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨