By Stephanie Nestor, Assistant Editor, Infrastructure Magazine

While the construction sector takes itself very seriously, this stoic approach hinders growth and creativity in the sector, with many workers reluctant to approach their leaders with new ideas for fear of challenging industry norms. According to a researcher from Bond University, the secret to overcoming challenges and driving innovation may lie in telling a good joke.

In its 2023 year in review, the Australian Construction Association (ACA) suggested that improving productivity is paramount to overcoming challenges in the sector, particularly finding ways to encourage and invest in innovative solutions.

The key to the sector’s growth in the years to come will hinge on whether developers and companies can adapt to changing demands and reforms to improve the industry’s culture, and that all starts on the construction site itself. Dr. Ahmad Siddiquei, Assistant Professor of Management at Bond University Business School, has discovered through a research study that humour helps create a positive working environment on construction sites, known for being stressful and rigid.

Dr. Siddiquei said the study was motivated by the construction industry’s unique challenges, including continuous innovation amidst stringent deadlines, high risk of accidents, poor work-life balance, and environmental considerations.

“These pressures necessitate exploring new avenues to foster creativity and innovation among teams, making exploring leadership qualities, such as humour, vital for enhancing team dynamics and creative outputs,” Dr. Siddiquei said.

Warm up the audience

Maintaining a positive work environment fosters openness and honesty between workers and leaders and encourages cultural change within a sector. But in a tense industry such as construction, it can be challenging to approach leaders with new ideas or feedback without fearing consequences.

“This research delved into the nuanced relationship between the use of humour and its effects on fostering an environment conducive to creativity and innovation,” Dr. Siddiquei said. “The research data was collected through a survey conducted in six organisations involved in large-scale construction projects in China. That survey data came from 165 team members nested within 45 teams.”

China’s construction industry is one of the largest in the world, with a value of USD 1 trillion and growing 5 per cent annually. As a fast-growing and significant sector, innovation is necessary for the industry to address challenges. “China’s construction sector contributed 25.7 per cent to the country’s GDP in 2021 alone, so it’s a place where innovation is not just a buzzword, but a necessity to navigate the challenges of rapid urbanisation.”

Despite Australia’s construction industry seeming miniscule compared to China’s, both countries are facing rising costs, supply chain disruptions and increasing demand for investment in infrastructure development and housing. Notably, both Chinese and Australian project managers are looking to address issues to improve workplace culture on construction sites.

“Through statistical analysis, the study illuminated how humour positively influences psychological safety within teams, thereby encouraging a more open, trusting, and innovative workplace culture.”

Strategic use of humour

While laughter may seem disruptive on construction sites, the study suggests it can positively enhance the team’s social-emotional environment, nurturing psychological safety. Cracking a joke can help project managers encourage workers to freely express their opinions, open up conversations, and convey complicated ideas easily.

This study explores explicitly benign violation theory: that is, humour only works when a joke can go against situational expectations and is simultaneously harmless. In line with this theory, the study suggests that a leader’s sense of humour will influence the acceptability of norm violations in teams, helping to alleviate tension, create a relaxed atmosphere and help foster creativity.

“Leader-initiated humour acts as a powerful catalyst for enhancing psychological safety within teams, creating a fertile ground for innovation and open communication,” Dr. Siddiquei said. “Through the strategic use of humour, leaders can effectively lower barriers, mitigate tension, and foster an atmosphere where the sharing of novel ideas and the questioning of established norms are not just tolerated but encouraged. This approach signals to team members that divergent thinking and the expression of unique perspectives are valued assets, not liabilities.

“By cultivating an environment where individuals feel secure in taking risks and voicing their opinions without fear of retribution or ridicule, humour becomes a key instrument in driving a culture of creativity and continuous improvement.”

Catalyst for creativity

This study offers a new approach for construction companies to foster creativity on site, establishing connections between leaders and workers, and encouraging innovation to help the sector adapt and grow. According to Dr. Siddiquei, there are three key take-aways from this study for project managers to learn from.

“Firstly, project managers are encouraged to leverage humour as a critical communication strategy, enhancing message appeal and fostering a creative atmosphere. This approach aids in effectively sharing project objectives, making interactions more engaging.

“Secondly, the selection process for project managers should consider individuals with a notable sense of humour, recognising their potential to inspire creativity and positively influence team dynamics. Initiating meetings with humorous exchanges can spark creativity and motivate team members to participate and share innovative ideas actively.

Dr. Ahmad Nabeel Siddiquei, Assistant Professor of Management, Bond University

“Lastly, humour is identified as a vital tool for leaders to facilitate a psychologically safe environment in addressing the human resource challenges prevalent in construction. This atmosphere encourages open communication and the sharing of creative solutions, which are essential for tackling complex projects.

“Through strategic humour, managers can signal a supportive culture that values risk-taking and open dialogue. “So, next time you are on a construction site, don’t forget to share a joke. It might just be the key to unlocking innovation and success.”

Beyond the study

From here, Dr. Siddiquei plans to explore this study area further in a future project, mainly focusing on how humour can encourage creativity in different cultural settings.

“Our future research project will delve deeper into how a leader’s humour impacts team creativity over time, differentiate the effects of various humour styles, such as affiliative versus aggressive humour, and explore the study’s applicability across different cultural settings. This expanded focus will enhance our understanding of humour’s nuanced role in leadership and its potential to foster innovative, high-performing teams in diverse environments.”

But not just the construction sector can learn from this study. Leaders in other sectors can leverage humour to transform workplaces to foster connections and drive innovations. “Humour is a vital skill for anyone who wants to grab attention and convey profound or complicated ideas.

“The study highlights the critical role of psychological safety as a mediator in the humour-creativity link, suggesting a broader implication for leadership practices beyond the construction industry. “Leaders across sectors can leverage humour to build a supportive and innovative culture, driving team and organisational success.”

Something as simple as making others laugh has the potential to change workplace culture and unlock creativity, supporting growth and innovation to meet future challenges head-on.

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