A recent paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology points to the creative effects of sarcasm and the numbing impact of anger. An experiment with engineering workers found that those who witness incidents of anger, such as abusive customers or frustrated bosses, tend to focus their minds well on analytical tasks but are hindered by activities requiring lateral thinking and problem solving. On the other hand, workers exposed to sarcasm, such as a customer complaining about service being “as fast as a snail” or a co-worker offering high praise for bad work, tend to do better at creative thinking. The suggestion is that when confronted with angry situations, we concentrate hard on preventative measures, risk-aversion and fire-fighting so we don’t expose ourselves. Sarcasm, on the other hand, is less threatening and a form of creativity in itself – requiring the listener to make sense of abstract comments and look at things from different angles.
Another bit of interesting related psychological research I’ve come across suggests that a funny incident in the workplace can have a positive cumulative effect on employee engagement and satisfaction by setting in motion a ‘Humour Wheel’. In the theoretical paper published last month, two US academics wrote: “Drawing on theories of humor and emotion, the Wheel Model suggests that humor-induced positive effect results in transmission of emotion to social groups, which in turn creates a climate that supports humor use and subsequent humor events”. To you and me this simply means ‘laugh and the office laughs with you.’ Humour is one of the most intense human emotions. It’s an inherently social phenomenon with positive benefits stretching from motivation and relationships to relaxation and wellbeing. As we all know, laughter is highly contagious; it spreads fast, even without context. You might start smiling simply by seeing someone else laugh, even without knowing what they’re laughing at. Our brains respond to laughter sounds in the same way as they respond to something funny. And in the workplace, one person’s laughter can remove cultural inhibitions and give others the permission to laugh too. We are still too stuffy about laughter at work, but there are signs that some organisations are at last taking fun seriously. A dose of sarcasm might not be a bad thing too.