According to a recent study by Caroline Rosenberg, Arlene Walker, Michael Leiter and Joe Graffam of Deacon University’s School of Psychology, humor in workplace leadership may not be a laughing matter. In fact, their research indicates that humor, used appropriately, can result in greater team cohesion, more productivity, and increased trust in organizational leadership. Used inappropriately, it can increase strain between coworkers, decrease employee tenure, and imply an acceptance of deviation from policy and social norms, all while reducing employee confidence in leadership competency. The research involved a review of 62 previously conducted studies from a 40-year research period, and, in addition to providing practical considerations for any level of organizational leadership, it identified topics and questions for future studies of a similar nature. The project was a scoping review, which is exploratory in nature vice seeking to answer a specific question, so their ultimate aim was to identify themes, trends, and patterns in research which involved both humor and leadership over the past four decades.
One initial challenge faced by the researchers was simply identifying a consistent definition of “humor” used across their range of studies. Some studies focused on humor as a personality trait, while others treated it as a communication process or a social phenomenon. One study used laughter as an indicator for the presence of humor in conversation. Unable to find a definition that was specific enough to measure empirically, but broad enough to capture its expansive influence, the researchers ultimately did not provide a definition for the word, but rather broke it down into four categories which could be used to more effectively predict its outcome. They identified two positive humor styles (affiliative and self-enhancing humor), and two negative, or maladaptive humor styles (aggressive and self-defeating humor). The positive humor styles resulted in positive outcomes, while the negative humor styles generally resulted in negative ones.
Both affiliative (also referred to as interpersonal adaptive style), and self-enhancing (or inwardly adaptive style) humor resulted in increased perception of confidence and competency in the leader using the humor. In addition, both positive styles of humor could be used to foster resilience, reduce the impact of negative announcements, build trust, boost morale, and foster a positive and productive culture within the workplace.
Aggressive (also referred to as interpersonal maladaptive style) and self-defeating (or inwardly maladaptive style) humors could still result in a perception of increased confidence, but they also resulted in a decreased perception of leadership competency. Usage of negative humor styles represents poor example setting, and in situations where enough inappropriate humor is used, employee engagement and trust decreases, with the ultimate result of poorer employee retention.
Despite the seemingly clear results of the study, another dimension is necessary in any comprehensive review of the effect of workplace humor: culture. While positive humor styles are productive in Western society, they are still seen as highly in appropriate in many Eastern societies, which are high power-distance cultures. In fact, in Eastern cultures, the use of even positive humor can be perceived as irreverent of a leader’s authority, or even intellectually shallow.
Future research still has quite a few questions to answer about how to use humor effectively as a leadership tool. First, what exact circumstances make a use of humor appropriate? Many leaders intuitively understand that it’s more acceptable to use humor at a Christmas party than it is at a project update meeting, but what makes that the case? What attributes aside from appropriateness also effect the impact of humor? Perhaps the authenticity of the delivery, or the personality of the deliverer? Perhaps most importantly, is humor a skill that can be learned or simply a useful trait for those who are organically humorous? The Deacon University cohort believes that it can be trained, and that future research should focus on how the training can best be implemented. Perhaps it is possible to increase leadership sensitivity to social and situational signals queuing humor, so that leaders can understand when its use is appropriate and when to refrain.
Ultimately, humor is a tool that’s available at leadership’s discretion, but its application requires emotional intelligence, experience, and communication skills. By holistically mentoring today’s staff (tomorrow’s leaders), we can be sure to teach professionalism, along with appropriate boundaries and respectful communication, to make tomorrow’s workforce happier and more productive.