Say you're walking by a group of employees and find them laughing uproariously together. Do you do a covert scan of their screens to see if they're slacking off with funny cat videos, or maybe give them a stern 'get back to work' glance? Or do you meander over to hang out and maybe join in the fun?

For many productivity-minded bosses, the answer is probably closer to the former than the latter. You pay people to get stuff done, not to joke around, after all. But if you're a laughter-killing leader, a fascinating recent deep dive into the science of silly by BBC journalist Bruce Daisley holds an important lesson for you. Your stern-faced seriousness is actually making your employees less effective and less creative.

The science of silly

The in-depth article rounds up a ton of research findings on why people laugh and how cracking up affects our brains. The basic message is crystal clear: people who laugh together feel comfortable together, and this relaxed state is the perfect environment for creativity to thrive.

"Laughter is a subconscious signal that we're in a state of relaxation and safety," according to University College London professor Sophie Scott, which means that "if a group is laughing together, then it suggests that our protective guard is down. This matters because there's research to suggest that when our brains are relaxed, we more easily achieve free idea association, which can lead to creativity," Daisley explains.

Other studies have shown that showing people stand-up comedy before asking them to do tricky puzzles helps them experience more flashes of inspiration, which allows them to correctly solve up to 20 percent more problems. Other research confirms what you've probably already observed in real life -- laughter kills stress and bonds people together.

Taken together the message for bosses is clear: laughter isn't just likely to make your workday more enjoyable, it will also make it more productive and creative. So instead of giving your employees the stink-eye when you catch them cracking up over something silly, you should probably smile along.

How to run a laughter-friendly office

But bosses should not only not discourage goofiness. They should also actively promote a laughter-friendly environment. "You can voluntarily choose to laugh more by lowering your threshold for amusement. Just be willing and prepared to laugh," Daisley quotes Robert Provine, a leading researcher in the field and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation as saying. Asking yourself and your family this simple question each night might help too. 

Provine also suggests building more time for socializing, like team lunches and happy hours, into your workday, and other scientists recommend making sure your team actually still talks face to face sometimes. A smiley emoji over Slack doesn't have the same positive effects as a good in-person guffaw.

Finally, it should be noted that if you know and trust your fellow employees, you needn't shy away from a bit of snark. Research shows that formulating and decoding sarcastic comments is a great mental workout that actually promotes creativity. So if you prefer your humor dry and biting, don't feel it isn't office appropriate. As long as your team isn't getting their feelings hurt and you're all laughing, the outcome is likely to be more good ideas.

Published on: May 15, 2018