Leadership Isn’t a Joke: The Costs of Using Humor on Social Media

Key takeaways:

  • Being funny online can lead to negative outcomes, like reduced credibility and support
  • Leaders and organizations should use caution if they use humor on social media
     

In the last few years, political leaders have become increasingly less formal when they interact with their constituents. Consider, for example, Vice Presidential-hopeful Tim Kaine’s frequent use of dad jokes or Elizabeth Warren grabbing a beer during a live video with would-be voters. Social media usage seems to be exacerbating this trend, with candidates and officials taking to Twitter or other platforms to make jokes, leverage sarcasm or use irony to attack competitors.

Political leaders seem to be using humor in order to engage with followers and make themselves appear more interesting, funny or even relatable. Indeed, research suggests that communication on social media is inherently different than traditional forms as it is often more informal and offers opportunities for engagement without intermediaries.

But do these politicians’ respective uses of humor work as planned — or could there be unintended consequences?

This question motivated a recent study published by myself and a colleague, Austin Hubner, in the journal Communication Research Reports. We wanted to know whether political leaders’ use of humor appealed to potential voters or turned them off.

We ran an experiment where participants were exposed to the social media feed of a fictitious political candidate. Some participants saw a feed full of puns and jokes, and the other group saw a feed with the jokes removed. We also varied the age (young versus old) and sex (male versus female) of the fictitious candidate in order to determine if demographic characteristics made a difference in how humor was interpreted.

Our results were clear: People who saw the political candidate using humor experienced expectancy violation, which means that they reacted negatively to something that they didn’t expect. Furthermore, expectancy violation led participants to believe that the candidates were less credible, and this made them less likely to support them. These effects didn’t depend on the age or sex of the fictitious political leader.

Our study suggests that political leaders should take care when they communicate with voters. While social media may make things less formal, people still expect their politicians to seem professional and capable. Humor may diminish those characteristics.

We think our findings are generalizable to leaders or organizations outside of politics. Leaders should think about how they want their audience to view them: Do they want to seem credible, authoritative and competent? If so, it may be best to cut the humor, or they’ll find out that the joke was on them.

Read more about our study in Ohio State Research News.

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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.