Why Leaders Use Humor at Work

Humor has been analyzed by the some of the best minds in history – Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, and Freud to name a few. There is plenty of research on the positive impacts of humor in organizations; however, there is less knowledge on leaders’ own perspective on humor.

I wrote my postgraduate thesis on humor in the workplace and how much leaders enjoy using humor as part of their leadership style. I spent a year researching and interviewing leaders in the Management Consulting industry in North America. Here are the 5 key takeaways:

1) Leaders use humor to enjoy their work.

Humor builds relationships, increases likability, improves job satisfaction, and increases productivity. Leaders enjoy feeling these benefits and using different styles of humor to express superiority, minimize status differences, make friends with others, and defuse tension depending on the situation.

2) Leaders use humor to signal confidence and high emotional intelligence.

Leaders using humor is a sign to followers that they can handle what others may see as out of control. The leader’s humor reassures followers that he or she has enough confidence and control to joke about the stressful situation in front of them.

3) Leaders use humor as a humanizing tool- the Pratfall Effect.

Leaders using humor humanize themselves in the eyes of others. The Pratfall Effect is a psychological phenomenon that claims we distance ourselves from people who appear perfect. We are significantly more attracted to competent people who appear to have a minor, relatable flaw.

4) Leaders use humor to be more memorable.

A sense of humor has been studied to be the most important factor in employees forming impressions of their supervisors. Leaders who use humor remain memorable for longer because people are more likely to remember previous events that are interjected with relevant humor.

5) Leaders use humor to get a view into a group’s norms & memberships.

What people find funny changes over time, based on the people and environment. Humor can be seen as a window into a group’s norms, values, tolerance levels, in/out group memberships, freedom of expression and what people deem acceptable today.

Next Steps for Leaders…

Practice (and master) one style of humor in one setting. Using humor in the workplace can be practically implemented. For example, you could use self-deprecating humor in an area unrelated to work, like, burning asparagus every time you cook! Like… every time. Seriously, how hard should it be to cook asparagus? Luckily, humor isn’t as hard, especially when using some of the humor resources for individuals.

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