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Chapter 17: Technique 14: Using Humor

For many people a best friend is someone to whom they can reveal their true selves, including their absurd selves, their humorous aspects. Given the centrality of their work for many Americans, they are seeking this kind of relationship on the job. Effective inner leaders use humor as part of their effort to inspire and direct followers to some ideas, activities, and approaches and away from others. Santovec (2001) says workplace humor is driven by leaders who set the environment within which humor is used, define the parameters of its use, and more than other members of the work community apply it in work related interactions.

Humor is a useful, if little recognized, measure of status in the group. It helps define a member's place in the work community, who that member is as an individual, and how the community defines itself. Abramis (1992) says that humor is an essential part of "humanness." He suggests that if a work community is humorless, if humor is suppressed, the likelihood is that other essential characteristics required to do business are also suppressed, and the members' humanness is restricted. When people can laugh at themselves and each other they feel better about themselves and others and are more connected, bonded.


Human beings are alone among all creatures in their ability to laugh. It is a core characteristic that helps define the human being. Humor is a way people express their true, intimate, core selves, including their vulnerable, foolish, irrational, ridiculous sides. Humor harks back to the individual's childlike nature, that part of self that remains unchanged from childhood, perhaps the person's most accurate and authentic expression of self (Abramis, 1992).

A sense of humor is a characteristic frequently associated with leadership, especially that kind of leadership that prioritizes growth, involvement, and personal concern for followers—in other words, with inner leadership (Avolio, Howell, and Sosik, 1999). Abramis (1992) reports that suppression of humor results in suppression of creativity and reduction in follower mental health. Both of these factors are essential to the healthy work community and are key in the mix that defines the inner leader (Terry, 1995). As inner leaders use humor and encourage its use by community members, both experience higher job satisfaction, more job involvement, and more committed followers. Many work communities attribute higher levels of employee commitment, cohesiveness, and performance to their leaders' use of humor (Avolio, Howell, and Sosik, 1999).

Humor has both direct and indirect effects on individual and unit performance. The use of humor directly enhances followers' motivation to change. Using humor in work communities has been associated with improving morale among workers. It helps create a more practically functional work culture and enhances work community cohesiveness. Inner leader use of humor inspires both member and community creativity and increases individual motivation (Avolio, Howell, and Sosik, 1999).

Avolio, Howell, and Sosik (1999) report on numerous studies that relate the use of humor with higher levels of productivity and with unconventional and innovative thinking. Humor points out discrepancies in logic and beliefs and can stimulate innovative thinking. It allows people to stand back from a problem and take a new and unique perspective to address it. It clarifies differences between individuals in terms of their needs and aspirations and builds greater cohesion, unit identification, and commitment to others in the work community.

A sense of humor comes out of the individual leader's sense of his or her authentic self. Humor reaches that part of human beings that is not physical, a part many call spirit or soul which others refer to as personality. Using humor helps overcome self-doubt and helps lead to success and prosperity. What has just been said for leaders also applies to those led. The way to assure that inner leaders meet common needs is for both leader and led to add humor to their interrelationship dynamic.

Humor conveys important cultural messages. It identifies the "ins" from the "outs" in the work community. That is, it determines who is part of the core group and who is external to it. Humor helps determine domination and submission relationships. Who uses humor and who cannot, who can make light of whom, what humor is about, all show the status of the user of humor. It is a key part of culture creation and maintenance. Deal and Kennedy (1988) include use of humor as among the potential cultural norms that help the work-community change process. They suggest that leaders can ease change in a work-community culture by using humor along with collegiality, openness, high expectations, appreciation, caring, and recognition of important matters.

Humor socializes; it conveys membership. It showcases cultural values. Humor is symbolic. It has an "as if" function. Humor lets us assume something stands for something else in the situation. It integrates otherwise disparate work communities and helps sustain and establish solidarity. It is a face-saving tool. And humor is a way to show arbitrariness in a situation. All in all, humor is a little used but powerful tool leaders can use to gain and maintain control over a situation or work community, to socialize new members, and to gain and continue desired results.

Humor moderates the relationship between the inner leader's style and work unit performance. When humor is properly used, it can amplify the inner leader's action and performance (Avolio, Howell, and Sosik, 1999). It helps cope with stress. It also is a helpful tool work-community members use in dealing efficiently with their interpersonal problems. Humor mitigates the impact of tension in leaders, relieving their own and that of their followers. Humor has value in helping make positive circumstances understandable and acceptable. It also is a tool to assist inner leaders in making negative life events more endurable and moderating the level of negative mood disturbance. Santovec (2001) reports that her research suggests that workers feel that a workplace including an element of humor is a benefit.

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