Hey Bozo! How to Lead More Effectively with Humor

A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a leadership seminar—just joking.

I’ll stop clowning around and get to the point: Are funny leaders better leaders?

According to a recent study titled “The Mixed Blessing of Leader Sense of Humor: Examining Costs and Benefits” published in the Academy of Management Journal[1], the answer is yes and no—humor has both positive and negative consequences. More specifically, when leaders use humor at work:

  • They were seen as more enjoyable, likeable and effective by their followers. As a result, their followers reported being more engaged at work.
  • Followers also reported an uptick in deviant behavior that violated both organizational norms (e.g., stealing office supplies) and interpersonal norms (e.g., being rude to coworkers) as jokes tend to signal to followers that norm violations are acceptable in the workplace.

However, for all those aspiring comedians out there, these effects are largely determined by the type of humor used. That is, the positive and negative effects of humor on followers were found to depend on the style of jokes used by the leader. You know what they say: It’s all about the delivery.

  • Leaders with an aggressive sense of humor—a more disparaging or ridiculing style that includes milder jokes, such as sarcasm, satire or teasing—suffered negative follower outcomes (increase in deviant behavior and greater acceptance of norm violations) without reaping the valuable benefits associated with laughter (increased follower engagement and higher-quality relationships).
  • Conversely, leaders that manage to be funny by engaging in more positive forms of humor—including jokes that are self-deprecating—were found to have better relationships with their followers and, in turn, a more engaged workforce that was able to regulate deviant behavior and adhere to workplace norms.

To sum up, leading with humor is a double-edged sword. To create a win-win situation and enhance overall effectiveness, leaders should resort to a more positive, wholesome comedic style that limits—and preferably eliminates—aggressive forms of humor that garner cheap laughs at the expense of others. Remember:

Everybody loves a comedian, but nobody loves a clown.

[1] Yam, K. C., Christian, M. S., Wei, W., Liao, Z., & Nai, J. (2018). The mixed blessing of leader sense of humor: Examining costs and benefits. Academy of Management Journal61, 348–369.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.