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Laugh and the world laughs with you” goes the old saying, but that’s not always the case in the workplace.

An HBR article covering research conducted in health care on the impact of humor in clinician-patient interactions is equally applicable in other industries. The authors indicated that humor can be a suitable side dish for an entrée of empathy, courtesy and respect but in the absence of these main courses, it backfires.

So as project managers, what can we take from this that might help us in our work?

No question, there are many project situations in which we find ourselves where a joke might help but there are equally as many where it might make things worse.

Conflicts are one such instance. If two of your team members are having a heated argument about something, a joke might be just what’s needed to inject some levity into the situation which gives them time to take a step back and see things in a different light. On the other hand, if the conflict has escalated past a certain point or if you are unsure on how the participants would react to such an approach, a joke might be perceived by one or both of the team members as you egging them on or picking a side.

When the team is concerned about a looming milestone or an issue which seems difficult to overcome, well-timed humor might be just the antidote. You might be able to short circuit the rising tide of fear, uncertainty or doubt. But missing the mark could result in some team members disengaging or a full scale argument about their concerns.

Finally, we come to delivering bad news. There can be situations where you might be able to to soften the blow of learning that the project is in trouble, but this could also be the final straw for your customer or sponsor. Just imagine how you’d feel if a PM came to you and said “The project deadline can’t be met, but hey, you still have your health!”

So if we feel that humor might help in a given situation, how can reduce the likelihood that it falls flat? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Have I read my audience well enough to feel they will understand the humor the way I intended it to be received?
  2. Is my timing appropriate?
  3. How could they possibly misinterpret my intent?

And if you are still not sure, do a dry run of your message with a trusted, impartial advisor and proceed according to their feedback.

Sir Edmund Hillary might have been speaking about projects when he said “Good planning is important. I’ve also regarded a sense of humor as one of the most important things on a big expedition. When you’re in a difficult or dangerous situation, or when you’re depressed about the chances of success, someone who can make you laugh eases the tension.

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on  and on  as well as a number of other online book stores)

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