Next time some office wiseacre punctuates your presentation with a well-timed one-liner, don't get annoyed. He might have made it more effective.
Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock, lead author of the paper, observed 54 video taped meetings of employees at two German companies. The regularly occurring monthly check-ins were organized by teams within the organization. Supervisors were usually not present.
Interestingly, the authors note that they were pretty sure they observed typical behavior -- i.e. the participants didn't care that there were cameras in the room -- since employees didn't feel compelled to censor trash talk about their absent supervisors.
Lehmann-Willenbrock frequently observed patters of humor-laughter-humor chains. In other words, once someone told a joke, others felt free to chime in with more cracks until the laughter finally died down. And once that happened, Lehmann-Willenbrock saw that communication lines were opened, and teams were more likely to propose new ideas and ask constructive questions.
When the researchers followed up with the team members' supervisors, they found a relationship between humorous meetings and performance. The higher the number of humor-laughter-humor events during meetings, the better the supervisor rated the team -- both immediately after the meeting and two years down the line.
While these results sound like a win-win, Lehmann-Willenbrock found one exception in her research. Not all that surprisingly, humor doesn't have as profound of an effect on performance when organizations are going through tough times and job security is low.