“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Humor can help you build a more vibrant, creative, inspiring workplace — it’s both a driver of success and reflects success at work. It’s core to attracting and keeping great employees. It’s a stress-buster and is proven to help improve wellbeing. A sense of humor is also a strong trust-builder and trust is core to work relationships across the board. Humor is also a powerful catalyst for creative thinking – therefore can help drive a creative workplace. Research on humor as a moderator of leadership effectiveness found that the use of humor in constructive ways helps shape the nature of the culture we want to create. 1
So how can you track humor at work?
According to Yew et al (2011) 2, it’s possible to build a relatively accurate Naive Bayes classifier that uses social action data, without the use of content or media-specific metadata, to understand if something is ‘funny’. On this basis, it could be possible to build up a picture of whether an email, presentation, meeting was perceived to be funny based on how someone interacts with it. Sisense, a platform that enables developers, data engineers, and business analysts to simplify complex data and transform it into powerful analytic apps, developed a tool that scrapes text for words that are most commonly used in popular jokes to gauge if words or subjects that are commonly perceived as funny are being used. 3
Should you track how funny things are at work?
I would argue that this could be a healthy practice. Having a high-level understanding of whether key all-hands, email announcements, etc. are being perceived in a positive light and are contributing to a positive culture, or not, can be incredibly helpful. At Google, googliness is a core trait that’s regularly measured across the organization. It is meant to measure the prominence of the signature positive culture that Google embodies – and a sense of humor is characterized by the elusive concept of googliness. Googliness is one of the core criteria in recruiting, but also is held as a standard for leaders and is regularly pointed out as one that is very hard to measure – perhaps a more robust understanding of humor in communications could be indicative of googliness.
I would however push that we shouldn’t be optimizing around humor data. I would hypothesize that over-fitting for humor has diminishing returns. When you try too hard to be funny, it falls flat and this can have negative consequences on culture.
Furthermore, as was mentioned in the aforementioned article in The Academy of Management Journal, it’s important to be aware of the potentially negative impact of humor, especially when audience expectations and group composition is not considered. This could be captured by cohorting the group and understanding individual sentiment, however this could require identifying information.
Hence, privacy violations are a key concern. This is especially the case with the method that requires tracking of commentary on the shared content as well as the sharing patterns. Therefore, I’d recommend that only high-level reactions to the degree and type of humor be tracked and if more granular results are needed that they only be used if the sample size is large enough and can be effectively anonymized.
In short, humor is a serious matter.