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While some CEOs use humor as part of their leadership style, most top executives have little need to use it to get their orders obeyed. CEOs rely on more objective means. Inner leaders, however, often find humor to be a powerful informal tool in influencing work community members to their expectations. They use it to socialize followers into a cohesive work community distinct from all others. It helps to break down barriers between people and makes a work community more participative and responsive.

Humor can be either a help or a hindrance. For example, off-color humor and humor that alienates coworkers is not acceptable. Racial, ethnic, or sexist jokes create the potential for discrimination, disaffectation, and isolation. They also risk litigation. Making an employee the brunt of a joke can result in retaliatory action by the target of the inappropriate joke. This type of behavior can pull apart even the strongest of work communities. Inner leaders know that one person’s humor is another person’s lawsuit, because what may be funny at home is frequently not appropriate for the workplace.

Nevertheless, workplace humor can reinforce positive behavior. And adding humor doesn’t cost a lot. Most of the humor found in the workplace happens spontaneously (Santovec, 2001). Inner leaders foster humor in the appropriate context of the environment. Appropriate workplace humor is healthy. Self-effacing humor, where the leader is the object of his or her own joke, works well (Santovec, 2001). It shows the work community is not afraid to laugh at its own mistakes or ridiculous situations (McLaughlin, 2001).

Uses for Humor by Inner Leaders

Following are some areas where the use of humor by inner leaders is effective:

  1. Humor is a useful tool inner leaders use in helping to close the communication gap between them and their followers by providing an alternative channel of communication. Using humor lets inner leaders acquire information that might not otherwise be volunteered from members of the work community. The inner leader’s use of humor makes work-community confusion more bearable and draws attention to areas in need of the leader’s attention.

    Effective use of humor stimulates a shift in viewpoint that allows people to stand back from a problem and take a new and unique perspective to address it.

  2. Humor is a way to show arbitrariness in a situation. It lets inner leaders assume something stands for something else in the situation. Humor can mute strong emotions or reinforce them. Humor can express skepticism. It can contribute to desired goals of flexibility and adaptability. It integrates otherwise disparate work communities and helps leaders gain or retain desired attitudes. Pointing out discrepancies in logic and beliefs can stimulate innovative thinking (Avolio, Howell, and Sosik, 1999) and result in creative and innovative change.

  3. Humor is a determinant of inclusiveness and exclusiveness and their negative impact on performance. Humor enhances work community solidarity. It conveys membership. Appropriate use of humor builds greater identification, cohesion, and commitment in groups. Who uses humor and who cannot, who can make light of whom, what humor is about—all show the status of the user. The inner leader’s use of humor also can enhance trust, facilitate change, and encourage acceptance of his or her vision (Barsoux, 1996). Appreciating the various functions of spontaneous humor helps middle-level leaders communicate and lead productivity programs more effectively.

  4. Humor is an effective tool to denigrate some ideas and to reinforce others that are more compatible with the leader’s vision values. Humorous actions inner leaders take can result in the proposals, ideas, or values of another person to be rejected in favor of the leader’s own by getting work community members to laugh at, ridicule, or scorn the other person’s proposals. If respect is lost, so is much of one’s power. Without respect, dominance cannot be maintained. Getting others to laugh at or ridicule in any way the proposals of others is another way to exercise power in the situation. While risky and most often used early on in discussions with colleagues, the effective mid-level leader can reduce others’ “trial balloons” to irrelevance by the effective use of humor.

  5. Using humor is a way to promote greater flexibility and innovation, qualities that enhance cooperation and commitment. Research results suggest that experience in a given work community educates leaders to use humor in constructive ways. This experience helps leaders view the nature of the extant culture and that of the culture they want to create while also being aware of potentially negative impacts certain kinds of humor may have on individual worker performance (Avolio, Howell, and Sosik, 1999). Based on this knowledge, inner leaders may need to vary their approach to humor to conform to followers’ expectations to have a positive impact on culture creation and modification to enhance both individual and group performance. Different styles of humor may be more or less effective on desired levels of commitment depending on the composition of a work community (e.g., ethnicity, gender, experience levels, etc.), its history of interactions, its stage of development, and the circumstances in which it is operating. Seeing these situational factors from the perspective of humor is yet another skill inner leaders cultivate.

  6. Humor reduces negative feelings followers may have about their leaders, their vision, policies, or interrelationships practices and their orientation to productivity, quality, and flexibility. The relationship between leader action, humor, and performance is complex. By using humor, inner leaders may be able to reduce the negative effects typically associated with a lack of top leader direct involvement with workers in the middle and lower echelons of the corporation. Some of the positive effects of humor may mitigate the effects of the avoidance behaviors associated with leadership. Humor may create a climate that allows individuals to feel better about the unit, even though they are dissatisfied in some ways with their leader. Humor is a way to effectively create a positive atmosphere within a work community and thus stimulate higher levels of collective productivity. On the other hand, the use of humor may have been seen as a distraction from the leaders’ attending to their followers’ individual concerns (Avolio, Howell, and Sosik, 1999).

  7. Humor can help inner leaders induce followers to accept personal and professional developmental assignments without taking offense. When work community members are encouraged or told outright to attend a skills development or communication or other training session, they immediately think they are poor performers and get defensive (McLaughlin, 2001). Humor can help reduce these feelings and move members to accept the training or other changes. Almost any productivity or performance improvement program or training can come alive with comedy—providing the comedy used is appropriate. Humor allows people to make mistakes and say the wrong things (McLaughlin, 2001). Even getting downsized can be dealt with humorously once the initial shock subsides.

  8. Humor helps inner leaders influence followers to accept problem-solving roles. Humor is a way to help followers to let go of the feelings and psychological blocks sometimes created when they are faced with the heavy responsibility of making choices affecting the work community. Because laughing allows community members to be more receptive to positive messages, it is a helpful step into problem-solving tasks. The power of multiple competing ideas, activities, and goals typical of many work communities today can measurably reduce followers’ attention spans. Using humor, inner leaders can keep them involved long enough to let them deal appropriately with the issues, information, and alternatives incidental to any significant decision. There are, of course, alternative ways to get followers to decide, but most people respond more fully when they laugh (McLaughlin, 2001).

  9. Humor can reduce the tension attendant on increasing diversity in the work community. Rather than delivering the typical heavy presentation, it is sometime healthier to joke about diversity. Humor loosens the tension present when diverse work community members are placed in a work community of relative strangers. Humor lets them put aside differences to complete a task. It changes the energy in the room, keeps people interested, and helps them deal with important subjects. Humor helps diffuse the stress of the situation. Using humor in diverse groups is a risk technique. It is vastly more difficult to construct a humorous statement acceptable to multiple people holding multiple values than it is with a homogeneous group. The leader’s task in these situations is to insure that the humor used is not offensive to any community member but, rather, furthers the task of integration and cultural homogeneity at least around needed work tasks.

  10. Humor adds another incentive for members to join or stay in the community. Employees stay in a job not just for the money. Many factors in addition to salary influence retention, such as a desire for stimulating work. The opportunity to grow and learn through the work done also encourages workers to stay in the work community. They also stay because they enjoy working with their supervisors and coworkers (Carson, 2001). Incorporating humor into the workplace adds another reason for long tenure. It stimulates more of these positive workplace characteristics and qualities. Laughter in the workplace is a sign that the inner leader’s followers are connecting with other community members (Santovec, 2001). Humor contributes to creating a more positive organizational culture .

  11. Given today’s complex and high-stress work environment, humor can do much to reduce time lost due to illness and other stress-related problems. High stress leads to anger, anxiety, or depression, all of which cost money as unhappy, under productive employees lose time, file workers’ compensation claims, and raise the general turnover rates. While some stress actually helps increase productivity, high stress can lead to burnout. Studies have shown that laughing exercises the lungs, increases oxygen in the bloodstream, and stimulates endorphins, the brain’s natural painkiller. A good laugh will temporarily lower blood pressure (Santovec, 2001). Research finds a strong correlation between a positive outlook and an improved immune system. Thus, a fun filled workplace can translate into less absenteeism, lower health insurance rates, and less stressed employees (Santovec, 2001).

  12. Humor facilitates improving morale among workers (Santovec, 2001). Santovic also reports that humor is a strong, low-cost way of keeping and motivating employees. Correctly used, humor relieves stress, helps resolve conflicts, reduces turnover, improves communication, and promotes teamwork. Inner leaders who can remember a punch line to a joke or sharing a laugh over an absurd situation build relationships and enhance collaboration.

  13. The use of humor has been described as motivating divergent, unconventional, creative, and innovative thinking. Avolio, Howell, and Sosik (1999) contend that the use of humor stimulates a shift in perspective that allows the inner leader to stand back from a problem and to take a new and unique perspective from which to address it. It highlights discrepancies in logic and beliefs to stimulate analytical and creative thinking. Humor can help employees step into key problem-solving roles and allow them to make mistakes and say the wrong thing without long-term detrimental consequences (McLaughlin, 2001).

    According to proponents, creating fun is a tool inner leaders use regularly (Santovec, 2001). Learning through humor makes almost any leader–follower situation come alive, providing the comedy used is appropriate.

Suggestions for Using Humor in Leadership

While the type and kind of humor inner leaders use is idiosyncratic, some guidelines about the use of this technique can be deduced from observation and from the experience of others. The following principles might simplify application of this technique by emerging inner leaders.

First, humor is distinctive for each inner leader and, critically, it is unique also to each work community member. Leaders need to be intimately conscious of the background, values, and (at least the work) experiences of each community member because humor is in the eye of the hearer, not the teller of a joke or funny story. In short, what is funny to one person may be insulting or a social slur to another.

Second, self-deprecating humor has a better chance of being funny to your hearers. “Everything,” said Will Rogers, “is funny so long as it is happening to somebody else.” Inner leaders may expect success more often as they focus the humor on themselves and away from their followers.

Third, a person’s character is at least partially revealed by what he or she laughs at. Inner leaders can use humor to ascertain the character of their work community and individual members and to shape that character. What individuals laugh at, how they respond generally to a joke, whether or not they reciprocate, all these things tell inner leaders something about the individual member that can help them better understand and subsequently help their work community.

Fourth, humor can be used to reduce tension and stress. Routinely any work community goes through moments of tension and stress that can be eased by a well crafted joke, story or anecdote. Successful inner leaders have learned to gage the temper of their followers and match humor to the tense situation. While it is not an easy task, it often means the difference between leadership and disaster. (Abramis, 1992)

Forming a Humor Committee

One inexpensive way of deliberately injecting humor in the workplace is to create a specific committee for the purpose (Santovec, 2001). Santovec describes a mid-level unit leader who formed a committee and gave it a budget to coordinate many of its humor-producing events. Eighteen to twenty representatives from various branches meet monthly to organize different activities. The committee’s goal is to encourage the staff to play while working. The committee plans at least one event, and often more, each month. It tries to establish a humorous environment for the employees.

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