"I Wish You Were Funny!" Why Employees Prefer Humorous Leaders
An evidence-based perspective on the benefits and challenges of leader humor.
Posted Feb 04, 2020
Serial entrepreneur Ben Horowitz was once asked how he dealt with taking Loudcloud public during the tech bubble of 2000—an experience dubbed “The IPO from hell.” His response: “I slept like a baby… I woke up every two hours and cried.”
When it comes to leaders using humor, this quip nails it. Humor humanizes. It makes others feel more comfortable. Who wouldn’t want a leader that makes them laugh?
A colleague of Google’s co-founder, Sergey Brin, once noted that Sergey’s “constant ad-libbed one-liners generate[d] a lot of laughs. Not laugh-at-the-founder’s-jokes-or-else laughs, but real laughs.” Such comic relief was instrumental in dispelling the pressure of the search engine’s high-stakes work environment.
As another example, the founder of Zappos, Tony Hseih (who calls himself the “leader of the Zapponians”), reminds his employees that “we want to be able to laugh at ourselves. We look for both fun and humor in our daily work.” In doing so, Tony is a role model, reminding employees that no one should take themselves too seriously.
Aligning with these anecdotes, a surface-level perusing of the literature—both scientific and practitioner—might signal that as a leader, you too should try to be funny. This recommendation is far from complete. And that’s no laughing matter (this is a great example of a bad joke; see the section below titled “Sometimes You’re Just Not Funny”).
Meta-analytic evidence suggests that followers appreciate when their leaders have a sense of humor; they work harder, perform better, and are more satisfied with their leader. But why? Followers of leaders who use humor interpret the relationship as safe and amicable. Followers also perceive that the leader-follower relationships are grounded in social interests, not hierarchical expectations.
Perhaps the most popular form of humor as it relates to leadership influence is affiliative humor, which entails using jokes, funny stories, or witty banter. Such affiliative humor is important in leader-follower relationships because it helps make interactions more enjoyable and has the potential to diffuse tension and conflict.
Another form of humor with leader-follower implications is called self-defeating humor, which entails self-disparagement. Such self-deprecation is typically associated with gaining the approval of others or enhancing one’s relationship with others at their own expense. Leaders engaging in self-defeating humor have the potential to increase their likability because they signal to followers that their status as a leader is not something to be intimidated by.
Generally speaking, using humor may be helpful for you as a leader. But before you do a stand-up routine at your next weekly check-in, a number of caveats should be considered.
Being Funny at Another’s Expense Isn’t Funny
Steer clear of aggressive humor, which includes teasing and ridiculing others. Aggressive humor not only alienates the target, but it also makes witnesses uncomfortable. It makes them wonder, “Am I next?”
“Sarcasm is the Lowest Form of Wit but the Highest Form of Intelligence” —Oscar Wilde
Be wary of sarcasm; expressions intended to humorously communicate one’s meaning through language that indicates the opposite. Although sarcasm is one of the most popular forms of humor, research suggests that, specific to the workplace, it primarily leads to interpersonal conflict. The reason is that people don’t always “get it.”
This problem is exacerbated by the increased use of technology in day-to-day business communication. Plus, it makes people uncomfortable because they have a hard time interpreting the motive behind the sarcastic statement. Are they trying to be funny, or is there a hint of truth in that wisecrack?
Timing Is Everything
There’s an interesting chicken-and-egg conundrum surrounding leader humor. On the one hand, research illustrates that leader humor is related to trust and high-quality interactions. On the other hand, research illustrates that leader humor doesn’t work unless the leader and follower have a trusting, high-quality relationship. So which is it? The safest advice is to build a decent relationship before you start dropping one-liners.
Know Your Audience
Individual differences play a role in whether or not humor is well received. For example, when followers have a high need for control, leader humor becomes detrimental, not beneficial. To such followers, leader humor is ambiguous and unnecessary.
Relatedly, some followers have a hard time grasping the subtle cues about the meaning of a social situation (i.e., discriminative competencies). For them, leader humor typically falls flat.
Sometimes You’re Just Not Funny
Being funny is risky. Sometimes the timing or phrasing is off. And sometimes the comment is just flat-out not funny.
A joke is only funny when it violates a social norm, but is also benign. For example, “What do dinosaurs and lawyers have in common? They are both extinct.” Although this juxtaposition violates a social norm (i.e., comparing dinosaurs to lawyers), it won’t be considered benign if positioned next to an image of a dead lawyer.
Or, perhaps a more likely scenario, if this joke were to be told by a non-lawyer to a group of insecure lawyers, it’s likely to be perceived as offensive. The point is that humor is tricky. When it fails, leaders lose status, and they are also more likely to become self-conscious during future opportunities to be funny.
I once saw a bumper sticker that stated, “Life is better when you’re laughing.” It’s hard to argue with that one. But whether or not “work” is better when you’re laughing is to-be-determined. It depends on whether or not you’re actually funny. I doubt it. Just kidding.