I usually heard laughter when I walked by the office Cal and Ricky (not their real names) shared. They obviously got along well. Most people assumed they made a great team.
That wasn’t the case when I walked by the office share by Louise and Thelma (also not their real names.) Louise laughed often, Thelma rarely. They didn’t seem to get along particularly well.
Yet a closer look at productivity results showed Louise and Thelma significantly outperformed the feel-good team of Shake and Bake.
Most people were surprised; after all, where team effectiveness is concerned, communication matters.
Science says they shouldn’t have been surprised. According to a 2016 study published in Organization Science, when both people in a two-person team laugh a lot, overall performance tends to be low. Yet when only one person laughs a lot, the team’s performance tends to be higher.
Why? Possibly both people laughing may mean, to use yet another movie reference, they’re lollygagging. But it also could be because one of the two is simply being agreeable, or wants to be liked.
Which is a problem, since the study showed that when one member laughs frequently and the other does not, their teams engaged in more open communication and were more therefore more productive and effective.
Intuitively that makes sense: It can be awkward, if not uncomfortable, if I don’t laugh at something you find funny. Not only is my sense of humor different, I’m willing to nonverbally express that opinion — which also means I’m more likely to share a differing opinion where work is concerned.
To question assumptions. Express objections. Suggest alternatives.
That’s a different kind of “agreeable,” one wth a focus on finding and agreeing on the best option… rather than going along simply to get along.
All of which makes shared laughter somewhat of a canary in the productivity coalmine. As the researchers write, “We found that the agreeableness of a dyad (two-person) member reduces team effectiveness by increasing the likelihood of shared laughter.”
Of course that doesn’t mean you should immediately split up teams where shared laughter is relatively high. The nature of the laughter also matters: People willing to laugh at themselves tend to be more willing to admit to failings. To allow others to learn from their mistakes. In short, to be vulnerable — which allows other people to admit to their own weaknesses.
And therefore seek and receive the assistance they need to keep a project, and a team, moving forward.
But it does mean you should look deeper at the nature of how that team works together, because while team bonds matter, what matters most is how well a team accomplishes its goals.
And too much shared laughter may indicate that a team isn’t particularly focused.
Or, more likely, that or one (or more) people’s agreeableness is hindering the team’s productivity and effectiveness.