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Humor in Laboratory Management (Seriously!)

"If you're not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there" -- Martin Luther

by Wayne Collins
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Scientists are very serious people engaged in very serious work. Or at least that is the perception of the general public. But those of us who have made our living as scientists know better — it’s just that our sense of humor can be a bit off-beat and can seem eccentric or peculiar to the layperson. While some scientists enjoy inane slapstick comedy (think “The Three Stooges”) or ribald jokes outside of work, humor in the lab tends toward a more subtle variety. For example, technical workers are clever people who may be adept at wordplay (you might say they are punny people), enjoy satirical humor, or appreciate creative ruses. Since humor is part of the lab environment, an inquisitive mind might wonder if it serves any useful business function and if it has a place in the lab management toolbox. Thus, we take a serious look at humor to answer the question “Is there a useful role for humor in laboratory management?”

Understanding humor

We begin by developing a better understanding of our subject — so, first, a few facts and figures. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humor as “that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous; the mental faculty of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous.” While this definition addresses some aspects of what amuses us, our sense of humor is more complex and nuanced than implied in this formal definition; humor is one of those terms that everyone knows intuitively but can’t quite express in words. We also know that humor has individual and cultural components so that it is not something that can be universally shared — what amuses one may offend another. And, both the type and quantity of our humor tends to change over our lifetime. Did you know that the average child laughs or smiles 400 times a day but the number drops to only 15 for the average 35 year old adult? That a hardy laugh releases endorphins into the body to produce an exhilarating effect while burning 3 1⁄2 calories? That laughter increases oxygen intake to invigorate the body and release stress? The bottom line is that whatever your definition of humor, it is good for you and we don’t have enough of it.

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It is not surprising that humor has evolved an academic discipline that constructs theories to explain how it works. The leading theories fall into the category of “Superiority Theories” which maintain that humor comes at the expense of human failings, defects, disadvantages, or misfortunes.1 According to this view, all humor is derisive. Other popular theories are “Relief Theories” which maintain that humor comes from venturing outside the constraints of social norms and “Incongruity Theories” relating to mingling of two ideas that are felt to be utterly disparate or degrading something exalted by bringing it into contact with something disreputable.1 There are all sorts of variations on these themes but none account for the inexplicable subtleties of what amuses us — for example, I know a scientist who always laughs at the mere mention of the number “four” (???). Undoubtedly, many more research grants are needed before the academics figure it out.

Benefits of humor

While understanding the basis for humor may be an important intellectual exercise, the more practical issues are around its value in business. Again there have been studies performed by researchers from prestigious universities to answer these questions. In one experiment to determine if humor interferes with work and wastes time,2 participants were asked to complete tasks with “another person” over a networked computer. Actually, the comments were from a preprogrammed computer and differed only in whether they contained humor. The study found that the task time and amount of effort were unaffected by the humor and that the participants receiving the humorous comments rated the “other person” as more likeable, more cooperative, more social, and had a higher satisfaction rating for their work than those who received no humorous comments. A survey of CEOs found that 98 percent preferred job candidates with a sense of humor to those without and that 84 percent thought that employees with a sense of humor do better work.3 Humor is said to facilitate communication, build relationships, reduce stress, and provide perspective when used correctly in the workplace. It can break the tension or emotional anxiety of mistakes, enhance team building, reduce aggression, and generally promote a feeling of well-being and contentment.

In addition to the cultural benefits, humor can also have cognitive effects. It changes one’s mindset from a serious, rational, and objective frame to a more playful and creative one. It can allow teams to break out of cognitive “ruts” and stereotypical thinking to arrive at more creative solutions. One technique used in brainstorming is to ask the participants to suggest their most ridiculous ideas knowing that they will not work. In addition to serving as a fun icebreaker, the ideas often contain new perspectives on the problem that stimulate unexpected, out-ofthe- box solutions that actually will work. Humor facilitates brainstorming and innovative thought and unlocks serendipitous genius.

Show the “Rules of the Lab” (see sidebar) to an accountant, salesman, or member of any other profession that is not familiar with life in the lab and they may miss the point and fail to appreciate the humor. The same material usually evokes at least a chuckle from scientists and lab staff that recognize a small grain of truth in the exaggerations and have personally experienced the frustrations captured in the jokes. Sharing this insider humor in a team can build social bonds to bring the members closer together and build a feeling of affiliation. Some of our professional magazines include this type of insider humor — for example, the occasional humorous twist on chemical nomenclature or molecular structure that we enjoy would be totally incomprehensible to the average person just as accountant humor (an oxymoron?) might be lost on us.

Within psychology, there is a concept known as mirroring where people working closely together tend to synchronize both physiologically and emotionally after about 15 minutes. Thus, managers who bring humor and joy to their job will have it reflected in the attitudes of their staff. Managers with a good sense of humor are more socially popular, approachable, and are people magnets; the gap between management and staff is narrowed and interactions are more relaxed. Adding light humor when giving negative or sanctioning feedback conveys the message that improvement is expected but the misstep will not seriously affect the future relationship. A manager’s ability to “take a joke” also opens an important back door through which peers and subordinates can pass valuable feedback without risk of offending. Humor gives the speaker the right to deny that he meant anything by his comment, and it gives the listener the right to act as if nothing has been conveyed. Thus, this type of humor should never be ignored or taken casually — be aware of any underlying truths or hidden messages that are being conveyed in these jokes.

Humor and management

It is important for the manager to adopt an appropriate level of humor to avoid being regarded as a clown rather than as a leader. First and foremost, the staff needs to trust that the manager has the competence to lead them to their destination and the stability to guide them through stormy issues. Using humor without first establishing this credibility exacerbates a difficult situation and undermines the manager’s ability to lead. Managers wishing to improve their sense of humor should start slowly and trust their intuition — use humor as the icing and not the cake. Risk increases as more humor is injected so the manager must find the degree that matches his/her comfort level. The safest approach is to take yourself lightly and laugh at your own foibles — in moderation.

Just as some businesses have a dress code, it is appropriate to also have a humor code to spell out the limits of propriety. Certain types of humor should not to be tolerated in the workplace under any circumstances. This includes humor that is of a sexual nature, profanity, put-down, racial, religious, or harassing. Likewise, any humor ridiculing an employee or that makes anyone feel that they are not part of the team is unacceptable — humor must be inclusive, not exclusive. Making an assumption that a questionable joke is safe within a homogeneous group or at a gathering outside of work can spell trouble for a manager — you don’t leave your leadership role at the office. And remember, the preface “I hope this doesn’t offend anyone” will not let you off the hook in a work environment.

Practical jokes are not bad per se but have the potential to lead to harmful consequences if allowed to get out-of-hand. First and foremost, they must be totally harmless and pose absolutely no safety risk. I still chuckle when I recall arriving at work early one morning to find my office barricaded with crime scene tape and the outline of a body drawn on the floor. This was a totally harmless prank that the laboratory staff thoroughly enjoyed playing on “the boss.” This type of activity is part of an open collegial culture but boundaries must be set to prevent it from going too far. For example, a quick search of the web finds such lab products as snake-in-a-reagent-jar, grinding centrifuge noises, the spilled experiment gag, and the dribble beaker advertised for sale. These types of jokes can easily backfire and endanger or cause harm to the lab staff; strict rules must prevent this type of humor from entering the lab.

Scientists are serious people in a serious business but we are still entitled to have fun at our work. Humor makes for good business and for good science when used appropriately. It helps to create a relaxed culture where the staff enjoys their jobs and communication flows freely. Creativity and productivity can thrive in this type of open environment. The lab manager is the role model in demonstrating just the right level of humor appropriate for the organization. Good, effective leaders are able to combine communications and persuasion skill with an appropriate touch of humor to get their message across and win support for their ideas. If you have a good sense of humor, bring it to work with you to share with your staff and be prepared to reap an abundance of physical, cultural, and business rewards. There really is a role for humor in laboratory management — seriously!

This article was based upon a presentation given at Pittcon 2007, Chicago, IL.

  1. Monro, D.H. “Theories of Humor,” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum 3rd Ed., Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen, eds., Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co.,1988, pp. 349-55.
  2. Morkes, John. “Effects of Humor in Task-Oriented Human- Computer Interaction and Computer-Mediated Communication: A Direct Test of SRCT Theory.” Seminar on People, Computers, and Design, Stanford University, February, 2000. (
  3. Bannister, Steve. “Making Sense of Humor in the Workplace”, Canadaone (e-zine), October 2006.

Dr. Wayne Collins is Laboratory Services Consultant, Scientific Instruments Division for Thermo Fisher Scientific 1410 Gillingham, Sugar Land, TX 77478; (713) 272-2282;