Humor Creates Connection.
Humor, Seriously

Humor Creates Connection.

Stanford Business School professor Dr. Jennifer Aaker and lecturer Naomi Bagdonas explore how and why humor fuels a creative workplace.

Dr. Jennifer Aaker is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where Naomi Bagdonas is a lecturer. Together they teach the wildly popular class “Humor: Serious Business,” the inspiration for this Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and USA Today bestseller.

Daniel Pink, bestselling author of When, called it, “the ultimate guide to using the magical power of funny as a tool for leadership and a force for good.” Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google (Alphabet), said, “My teams are always at their best when approaching problems with levity, which entails both humility and optimism and always engenders trust. Plus, it’s more fun — like this book!”

Lighten Up

Why is so much of corporate culture so grim? As Aaker and Bagdonas explain, funny is hard. To fight bureaucratic blandness, they offer an instruction manual for using humor on the job. They dissect – with some success – what makes jokes funny, and provide examples for adding comedy to meetings, presentations and emails. They suggest that one lighthearted line in a serious presentation will bring smiles and create a more receptive audience. To harvest the power of humor, they believe, you don’t have to be funny – you only need to have a little fun.

No Fun

The authors provide the depressing news that a typical four-year-old laughs 300 times in a day, but a typical 40-year-old takes a 10-week span to laugh that much. Aaker and Bagdonas suggest that people avoid humor at work because they fear their jokes will miss the mark, fail to get a laugh or, worse, offend someone.

The collective loss of our sense of humor is a serious problem afflicting people and organizations globally.Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas

The professors maintain that humor is a skill, and they set out to help you improve your humor chops. They will convince you that humor can create personal connections and foster trust.


Laughter, Aaker and Bagdonas explain, releases the feel-good chemicals dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins, and it lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

A brain experiencing a flood of mood-enhancing hormones, the authors note, becomes more creative and resilient. They highlight laughter as a panacea that boosts blood flow, eases muscle tension and even helps prevent heart disease, because laughter can promote arterial wall flexibility.


Truth is a fundamental ingredient of humor. But, as Aaker and Bagdonas remind you, great jokes also often contain misdirection and incongruity. Aaker and Bagdonas venture on slightly shaky ground when they offer rules for humor, but comedians do vest in the rule of three: a joke should list two mundane or expected things and add a zinger. Comedian Amy Schumer, for example, described herself as “rich, famous and humble.”

Truth lies at the heart of all humor.Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas

The authors warn that you should never apply self-deprecating humor to any aspect of your life that might reflect on your professional capabilities.

Aaker and Bagdonas also urge you to avoid jargon, the antithesis of genuine communication. The professors offer the leaders of the consulting firm Deloitte as inspiration. They tried to expunge jargon from the firm’s email and presentations in order to make its communications crisper, clearer and more credible.


Aaker and Bagdonas  describe three types of personalities who can bring humor to the office in a positive way. ”Culture Carriers” are top performers who are also funny; ”Rebellious Instigators” enjoy pushing the envelope and ”Hidden Gems” are solid, unsung workers who reveal unexpected talents.

When a culture carrier makes room for an instigator, the authors believe, an organization can rise to new heights of performance.


Humor, Aaker and Bagdonas caution, is fraught with danger. It pushes the bounds of appropriateness – and not everyone will agree about what’s funny or offensive. If humor turns to teasing, or if the boss makes subordinates the target of humor, the professors raise concerns of bullying.

There are a whole lot of gray areas when it comes to humor.Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas

The authors are adamant that jokes relying on stereotypes about race, gender or sexuality are never acceptable. They underscore that the power differential changes the dynamic between appropriate and inappropriate humor. Mocking someone of higher status, they explain, can mark the humorist as a fearless truth teller, but poking fun at a lower-status target is bullying. Aaker and Bagdonas  offer a simple solution: if you break these unwritten rules, apologize fast.

Tricky Ground

Offering rules for humor and breaking down jokes into their supposedly effective components is tricky ground. However, taking that risk lets Aaker and Bagdonas pad their analytical content with jokes, which add to the book’s flow and its general feel-good ambience. What works in a classroom doesn’t always work on the page and there are strained moments when you feel the authors reaching for more words, more pages, than the material might require.

A sense of humor is part of what makes us human…deploying it doesn’t make light of serious things; it means you’re able to move forward, in spite of those serious things.Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas

However, the authors embrace a sacred mission: bringing more humor into the workplace, so any minor flaws are worth overlooking. Aaker and Bagdonas write in a genial, welcoming voice and nobody opening this book expects to find a  hands-on business manual. Instead, this is a valuable, amusing reminder of the ever-present and evermore urgent need to lighten up.

Simply put, few effective books mine this subject matter. Likely companion readings focus on interpersonal connection and improved person to person communication. They include Performance Conversations by Christopher D. Lee, Backable by Suneel Gupta and What Great Storytellers Know by Bernadette Jiwa.

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