Dialogue Classic: The laughter dividend


Humour is powerful. We need to understand more about it

Freud found humour of academic interest over a century ago. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that PB Malone and others focused on humour’s relationship to leadership. Much evidence emerged to suggest that humour, when used appropriately, has the power to enhance employee wellbeing.

Humour is a multifaceted concept. And, because of its intrinsically subjective nature, it is hard to define. Humour can, of course, provoke both positive and negative feelings in others – the distinction is critical. Positive humour has the power to unite employees and strengthen the leader-follower relationship, while negative humour can erode status-based relations and alienate people. Leaders have a range of types of humour available to them. Affiliative humour is non-hostile and funny behaviour. Humour used as a positive coping mechanism to reduce stress may be considered self-enhancing. Aggressive humour reduces others’ status and increases anxiety. Self-defeating humour can be used to lower the leader’s status and gain acceptance.

Possessing a sense of humour is often considered essential – but how one measures the existence of such a personality trait is problematic. Eysenck proposed three perspectives for measuring humour: the quantitative – how often something is funny; the productive – the extent to which something is funny; and the conformist – how widely shared is the appreciation of the humour.

Humour undoubtedly has a role in enhancing communication and understanding between leaders and colleagues. It can relieve tense situations, communicate a shared understanding and facilitate the transfer of information. It is also able to relieve frustration and alleviate boredom – jokes about shared experiences are an important element of office folklore and contribute to team cohesion.

Humour can make a leader more likeable – laughing with someone implies a shared set of values, and increased levels of trust. The ubiquitous importance of a sense of humour in many areas of life suggests that those using it are considered more approachable, understanding and more sought-after for relationships.

Research suggests that the positive use of humour can act as a buffer against negative effects of workplace stress – a coping mechanism helping to promote relaxation, relieve tension and manage disappointments, thus having an important role in mental health and wellbeing. We are all familiar with difficult or stressful social situations that have been alleviated by a humorous interjection.

The key here is the ‘successful’ use of humour – humour that elicits positive feelings. Positive humour has the power to reduce social distance between a leader and follower, increase employee motivation and identification with the organization, and improve a range of organizational outcomes. Negative forms of humour can harm the leader-follower relationship as well as be detrimental to performance. A leader may try to use humour as a positive tool, but fail to use it appropriately, or differentially affect different members of the team. For example, newer employees may appreciate it far more than longer-term employees. Humour is most successful in leaders who are authentic and have sensitivity to the different ways in which team members may take it. Thus, it should be seen as one tool alongside a range of others that leaders have at their disposal to build strong relationships with their teams, elevating morale and performance.

Laughter inspired by an authentic leader is more likely to be affiliative and self-enhancing. Aggressive humour suggests a leader with lower standards of integrity. But self-defeating humour may be exactly that – undermining confidence and acceptance of the leader who uses it.

Kate Cooper is head of applied research and policy at the Institute of Leadership & Management