Does Laughter Boost Team Performance? It Depends

Scientists have proven that laughter can be good for an individual’s well-being, but what of laughter in the work environment? Does it make for better performance? Prof. Lorna Doucet of School of Management Fudan University researched the question among a population of flight crews and found that everything depends on what type of laughter is expressed.

From the research paper by Lorna Doucet, Lu Wang, Mary Waller, Karin Sanders, Sybil Phillips (2016) A Laughing Matter: Patterns of Laughter and the Effectiveness of Working Dyads. Organization Science 27(5):1142-1160. https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2016.1082

No laughing matter

Despite being the bedrock of modern companies and organisations; despite the enormous investment organisations make in team training; and even despite the time spent trying to get the right team mix, team performance often fails to live up to expectations. Among the reasons for this, communication stands out as an important factor – or rather the lack of it. Poor communication within a team often means that task-relevant information is not shared or openly discussed – important factors for fostering trust, problem-solving, or meeting deadlines. Indeed, every manager and team member’s dream scenario would be a weekly meeting that saw co-workers sharing information freely and honestly, even if the information shared is at odds with team consensus. In reality, this rarely occurs, not least because such frank exchange is often perceived by team members to be socially risky. And perhaps even professionally so too – after all, no-one wants to risk sticking their necks out too much.

From this observation, Prof. Lorna Doucet of School of Management Fudan, China, and her research colleagues decided to test if laughter enhanced team communication, triggering effective task collaboration and therefore boosting team performance.

LoL

Laughter can be beneficial. Research has shown that even the sound of it can provoke an immediate and positive response in others that puts them at ease, increases their sense of liking towards the other and reduces the social and psychological gaps between them and the other. Laughter can also be as beneficial in good times as in bad – even in bereavement it can help saddened adults acquire support by triggering positive emotions in others. Its origins are ancient. Researchers from Darwin in the 19th century to Ruch and Ekman in the early 2000s focused on laughter’s place in the human communication repertoire, suggesting that it developed before language as an evolved form of play face and breathing patterns that occur in primates during social interactions such as mock fighting. Further research has shown that “laughter occurs thirty times more frequently in social situations than in solitude”. However, it also demonstrated that what comes before a burst of laughter – a statement, expression, joke or comment – isn’t, in many cases, actually funny in itself. This may reassure those of us who do not have the knack of telling them in the way Bob or Karen down the corridor do: it is the speaker rather than the listener who is often the first to laugh. This has led researchers to see laughter not as an involuntary expression of emotional reaction to humour but as an “interpersonal communication tool that serves explicit social functions”. Laughter therefore has a social intention behind it. And when a co-worker declines an invitation to laugh along this can be interpreted as a lack of interest in bonding. Indeed, continuously closing the door on a colleague’s efforts to share a laugh carries the risk of generating strong negative emotions linked to social rejection and even antisocial reactions. So do not laugh and it is at your risk and peril.

Team performance: To share or not to share

Laughter can be fun – up to a point. Moreover, laughter can be positive in a working context – up to a point. Building on previous research, Prof. Doucet points out that while laughter helps create a supportive and inclusive atmosphere in teams, there are times when it may draw attention away from task-related information and steer the serious away towards the silly and irrelevant. Putting this to the test on a selection of flight crews in a North American university flight training centre, she and her colleagues investigated the question from the perspective of different laughing patterns – shared laughter when team members frequently laugh together, and unshared laughter – when laughter comes primarily from only one team member. For Prof. Doucet and her colleagues, different patterns of laughter serve different purposes with consequently different effects on team communication and effectiveness. A twist in the tale – they also chose to investigate whether having an agreeable person on the team hinders or enhances laugher and hence, team communication and effectiveness.

They found that when laughter was unshared in a crew – with principally one crew member (either the pilot or the co-pilot) doing all the laughing – it caused a significant and positive boost in open communication between the pilot and co-pilot and hence, crew effectiveness. On the other hand, when laughter was shared – both pilot and copilot expressing laughter – there was a negative relationship between how much the crew laughed and their openness and effectiveness. In a nutshell, while shared laughter can be good for the overall feel-good factor, it tends to deviate team members’ minds from the job and make them less effective. When there is a sole co-worker mainly doing all the laughing, it creates the necessary feel-good factor among the team while preserving the attention given to the job at hand. In this context, having a nice guy on the team may in fact get in the way of a team’s task focus.  Prof Doucet and her colleagues found that agreeable team members – who are more prone to fostering good relationships – are more likely to laugh along when other team members are laughing. And this may reduce team effectiveness as it pushes team members too far towards a social and too far away from a task orientation.

The last laugh

Past research has shown the positive effect of laughter in interpersonal interactions and many have since thought that team members should therefore share as much laughter as possible when working together. The research of Prof. Doucet et al seems to caution against such an approach. Laughter is not simply about fun and lightness but can also be used to facilitate the sharing of sensitive and difficult information and is most likely to benefit teams when linked to the task at hand, and expressed by one main protagonist. Having someone too agreeable on the team – while good for overall team feel-good – could also harm effectiveness by influencing the pattern of laughter that arises in team interactions – and distracting from the task at hand. This may indeed provoke the ire of the team manager. This is reassuring for the more sombre professionals among us: as members of a team, the nice guys on our teams should not always be encouraged to have the last laugh.

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