Who of us doesn’t admire that co-worker who can deliver a punchline like it’s nobody’s business? Or the employee who can defuse a tense office situation with a quick, witty comment? Early in my career, I worked with a person whose stories always drew a circle of fans around her. She was hilarious. We felt good listening to her tell her tales of familiar human dilemmas and absurdities. Her humor was confident, bold, unabashed, some might say slightly reckless. But all of us, from the mail kid to the senior partners, ENJOYED it. She made us laugh and we loved her for it. She created a playful cushion between us and our work deadlines and stresses. Her humor made us feel a bit lighter, more cohesive, and perhaps better able to cope with the everyday pressures of our office. Did her sense of humor help her career? Well, it didn't hurt...she eventually worked her way up to become Chief Financial Officer of the firm.

Research shows that laughter and humor induce the natural release of endorphins into the body. Endorphins are the same powerful chemical that’s released from strenuous exercise and exhilarates the body, giving it positive energy. And we all know that positive energy can stimulate an employee’s work performance. Humor can also be a great connector of people which leads to more effective social communication. Good communication is necessary to maximize performance between employers and employees, salespeople and their customers, engineers and marketing. Sharing a laugh in the workplace can bring us closer, allowing us to get to know each other just that much more.

A study from London’s University College showed that people tend to mirror the behavior of those with whom they are interacting. This mimicking response was more likely with positive emotions than negative ones. Hmmm, makes me think of the lines from 19th century poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, "Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone…. Rejoice and men will seek you, Grieve and they turn and go…”

So, if humor in the workplace can improve work performance and build strong social relationships, what do hiring managers think of it? Specifically do hiring managers consider one's sense of humor as a criterion in choosing employees?

Well, hiring managers will say that certainly fit within an organization is one of the most important criterion to hiring. Of course, the prospective employee has to be qualified to do the job well. Assuming that, hiring managers want to know if the prospect will be an effective addition to the organization. Will they get along with the other employees? Studies show that a poor fit within an organization is far more likely to get you fired than whether you can do the job. In fact, only 15% of fired employees are let go due to incompetence, while 85% are fired for not getting along with others.

This begs the question, are funny co-workers more well-liked and more successful in business? Maybe, surmised Jenna Gaudreau in her excellent recent Forbes article entitled "Are Funny People More Successful in Business?" People who use humor in the office "will be perceived as more enjoyable and as better employees,” says Professor Anthony Sultanoff, a University of New Hampshire professor who researches this topic of humor in the workplace. Professor Sultanoff studies management and organizational behavior, and gleans from his research that “If someone is using humor, then they are connecting with people and building relationships, which creates opportunities that other people may not have.” However, Professor Sultanoff stresses, it must be the right kind of humor. It’s important to use positive, affirming humor versus negative hostile humor which tends “to target people, can be undermining and cause people to withdraw and be less motivated.” Positive humor “provides a sense of psychological safety that manages emotions and makes group members more willing to accept challenging goals.”

This is where humor in the workplace can get tricky since we all know that humor is relative. One man’s joking quip can be construed as another’s biting snip. Workplace humor is truly a balancing act and human resource professionals I spoke with suggested using caution. Overused humor can cause you to be seen as annoying and not serious. Inopportune humor can be dangerous.

Mike Myatt from Forbes suggests these eight tips on Workplace Humor to help you navigate that tricky humor path:

1.    Don’t confuse being a leader with being a comedian. Leadership is job number one.

2.    An attempt at bad humor is not an acceptable excuse for unacceptable behavior. Racist, sexist, ageist, and other forms of discriminating acts won’t be tolerated because you attempted to cloak them in bad humor.

3.    Use humor to lift people up, not to put them down. Don’t laugh at people – laugh with them.

4.    Don’t force it – if you’re trying too hard to be funny your humor will fall on deaf ears.

5.    Use your humor to make people feel more comfortable rather than more awkward.

6.    Gags and practical jokes should only be used when those on the receiving end find them funny.

7.    Don’t use humor to single someone out, use it to help them acclimate.

8.    Sarcasm is not a license to belittle someone. Saying “I was just joking” doesn’t cut it.

Let’s face it; funny people are just more fun to be around. Of course, those humorists have to be really good at their jobs, first and foremost. So what if you’re one of us who doesn’t have that sharp wit or was never good at delivering that punchline? Well, then, don't force it. Just try to be a happy, convivial co-worker. Smile a lot. Be cheerful and say hello to people. Compliment them when they deserve it. Try to support them when they need it. As the famous social networker Dale Carnegie would advise, “Focus outward, not inward.” Try to make others feel good. That’s as valuable around the water cooler as a quick wit any day. 

You've developed an impeccable career plan and are following it to the "T". You have goals and strategies to get to each goal and you're determined that nothing will set you offcourse.

But.... somehow, you're not making enough progress. Why? What's missing?

Perhaps you should try inserting a bit of happenstance into your career plan. Happenstance, or when an event happens by chance, is a relatively new career development theory. In this case, happenstance is intentionally inserted into the context of a focused career plan. Consciously inserting happenstance into your career plan allows you to explore new and unplanned events and opportunities. This is important in these uncertain economic days. One needs to be open-minded and nimble and to cast a wide net to take full advantage of the opportunities and the learning that can come from happenstance. Interesting things can happen when you allow yourself to explore unplanned events.

There are lots of entertaining stories of career happenstance that have led to some fascinating career results. You may have heard the story of Arthur Fry, the inventor of the Post-it Note. 

Mr. Fry, an engineer at 3M in the 1970s, attended a presentation by a fellow engineer Sheldon Silver, who had invented and was demonstrating temporary glue that seemed an inferior product. After all, what good’s glue that doesn’t stick? Mr. Silver sought advice from his peers for practical applications of this temporary glue. As the story goes, Mr. Fry “patiently listened” to the presentation but saw no useful application for the glue. Mr. Fry had his “Ah Ha” moment in a subsequent rehearsal for his church choir while trying to invent a reusable bookmark for his songlist. If Mr. Fry had not decided to attend and to remain at Mr. Silver’s presentation, he would not have become aware of this innovative glue substance. He inserted happenstance into his career by choosing to attend the presentation and the rest, as they say, is history.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Jonah Lehrer entitled How to Be Creative gives another shout out to this idea of happenstance. Mr. Lehrer says that intentionally allowing yourself to derail and letting events happen can promote creativity. Specifically, Mr. Lehrer describes the creative benefits of loosening your focus or allowing yourself to not pay attention. Apparently, while we are relaxed and not intensely concentrating is when we are most likely to have our most creative thoughts. “Although we live in a world that worships focus, we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate…this approach can inhibit the imagination.” He says that relaxation or stepping away from a problem helps to be creative. Hmmm…makes sense. How many times have people told you they get their best ideas in the shower? Lehrer goes on to describe Steve Jobs’ assertion that the “best inventors seek out diverse experiences, collecting lots of dots that they later link together.” Inserting happenstance certainly worked for Steve Jobs’ career.

John Krumboltz , PhD, a prominent Stanford University professor encourages actively including happenstance in your career plan in his book, Luck is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career. Mr. Krumboltz says that happenstance encourages people to take chances and be open to new circumstances. Inserting happenstance into your career has lots of potential benefits including the chance to:

  • test out new things (which is really fun),
  • test out your established values,
  • do things differently,
  • leave your comfort zone to acquire new skills and knowledge and
  • make new connections and increase your sphere of influence.

So, what do you think? Try inserting a bit of happenstance into your career. Attend that presentation or museum opening. Sign up for a class. Volunteer. Accept that impromptu invitation or say hello to a stranger. You never know where happenstance might take you and your career.