Story Led Marketing Speaking

Why does funny equal more money?

Jul 21, 2017

There's the glass ceiling and now let's talk about the 'grey' ceiling...

In my 20 year plus career in HR, it’s become increasingly obvious to me that a good sense of humour is more than a pre-requisite on your dating profile. There comes a point in the management career ladder where technical and functional competency plays second fiddle to leadership traits, of which humour is one of the two most desirable ones, according to a study by Bell Leadership Institute, (the other was a strong work ethic btw). This is chorused by a survey conducted by Robert Half International, which found the following:

“91% of executives believe a sense of humour is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humour do a better job.”

Unfortunately, this means that those craving promotion to a role that involves managing people, are likely to get passed over in favour of someone who can make the troops laugh. 


"A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done . " - Dwight D. Eisenhower ​

​​Given the groundswell of opinion from some of the most serious educational institutions, recognizing the significant benefits to both businesses, and ambitious individuals, of creating mirth at work, The Harvard Business Review has published several articles on the subject. Here's an extract from one of them: 

“According, to research from institutions as serious as Wharton, MIT, and London Business School, every chuckle or guffaw brings with it a host of business benefits. Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.”

Unfortunately, the HBR also noted that adults aren’t given very many reasons to laugh at work. 

“And yet, as the MBA candidate Eric Tsytsylin recently put it in a video presentation featured on the Stanford website, working adults are “in the midst of a laughter drought.” Babies laugh, on average, 400 times a day; people over 35, only 15. A recent study of Gallup data for the U.S. found that we laugh significantly less on weekdays than we do on weekends. Work is a sober endeavor.”

This holds true for my experience in corporate life. The way that we steer towards corporate speak in internal communications, the seriously dry, text heavy, power point based presentations, plus the concern about ‘saying the wrong thing’, means that fun and laughter can be a scarce commodity. But, maybe that’s why those people who use humour successfully, and appropriately are so highly thought of.

“If you can learn the humour of a people and really control it, you know that you are also in control of nearly everything else.” Anthopologist Edward Hall ​

​There is a view that you have to be born funny, but having been a comedian for a number of years, (alongside my HR career…let’s face it you need a good sense of humour to work in Human Resources), and having taught stand-up comedy for a number of years, I don’t subscribe to that view. In my opinion, humour is a skill that can be learnt, there are tools, techniques and systems that comedians, speakers and writers use to generate laughs that people in business can, (and should), learn.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that learning how to use humour, and use it intelligently, (even if you think you’re funny), is critical…because you can completely cock it up…as evidenced by the following two tweet results…

“First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Task #1: undermine CEO, consolidate power.”—Dick Costolo, the night before he joined Twitter as chief operations officer
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”—Justine Sacco, before boarding a flight to South Africa

He became CEO and she got fired... (although Dick had taken comedy improv classes after college, so he did have a bit of an advantage)

Whilst cracking a joke at work, (even if it’s a groaner), can not only make you seem more competent, get you promoted, and win you a bigger bonus… (yes I’m coming to that), cracking an inappropriate joke, can cause serious harm to your career. 

Here’s some more on this from another HBR article 'Cracking a Joke at Work can make you seem more competent' by Alison Wood Brooks

“Replicating our previous results, individuals who told a successful joke were perceived as more competent, more confident, and higher status than serious individuals. In an interesting twist, participants who told a failed joke were not perceived as worse than participants who gave a serious response, and telling a failed joke actually increased perceptions of the interviewee’s confidence.

Inappropriate-joke tellers were perceived as less competent and lower status than serious responders, even when the joke was funny. These results demonstrate the risk inherent in humor: Telling a bad joke is all right, but telling an inappropriate bad joke is quite costly.

All joke tellers experienced a boost in perceived confidence, but only interviewees who told successful and appropriate jokes were perceived as more competent.”

So, being serious is seriously career limiting!!

​Now to the bonus size, humour correlation I mentioned…in another HBR article ‘Laughing all the way to the Bank’ by Fabio Sala, he stated the following:

“Executives who had been ranked as outstanding used humor more than twice as often as average executives, a mean of 17.8 times per hour compared with 7.5 times per hour. Most of the outstanding executives’ humor was positive or neutral, but they also used more negative humor than their average counterparts. When I looked at the executives’ compensation for the year, I found that the size of their bonuses correlated positively with their use of humor during the interviews. In other words, the funnier the executives were, the bigger the bonuses.”

Then he looked at people who were being hired as executives:

“Another study I conducted involved 20 men and 20 women who were being hired as executives by the same corporation. As in the first study, I measured how they used humor during two- to three-hour interviews. This time, the interviews were conducted during the hiring process, and performance was measured a year later. Executives who were subsequently judged outstanding used humor of all types more often than average executives. And, as in the first study, bonuses were positively correlated with the use of humor—in this case, humor expressed a year in advance of the bonuses.”

So, let’s bring this puppy home. The takeaways from this are:

  • Used wisely, humour can have a positive impact on your career and bonus size
  • Businesses that don’t engage employees with humour are missing out on benefits relating to wellbeing, productivity, job satisfaction, and more...
  • If you want to develop your sense of humour, you should take a class*