We all want a boss with a good sense of humor. But a new study reveals that humor at work is ineffective -- no matter how genuinely funny you may be -- if you're lousy at building and maintaining relationships with your team members.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

October 14, 2015

3 Min Read
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People have always connected humor with good leadership. It makes sense. One of the roles of a leader is to help subordinates feel at ease, and humor is a great way to do that, particularly when trying to boost spirits in a stressful IT organization.

But a new study (subscription required) indicates we may be seeing the relationship between humor and leadership backwards. We tend to assume that a good sense of humor make a person a better leader. But new research finds that those who are already effective leaders know how to use different types of humor more successfully than their counterparts.

First, let's look at a traditional study about humor and leadership. The Bell Leadership Institute surveyed 2,700 employees about the characteristics of effective leaders. "Sense of humor" and "work ethic" were the two characteristics that came up twice as often as all others. The survey found that the most effective leaders used inclusive humor to encourage the team, while those who used humor in negative ways -- to show off, cut people down with sarcasm, or overly distract people -- weren't very effective.

[ But hey, as long as we're on the subject of humor... Read IT Vs. Seth Meyers: 5 Great IT Jokes. ]

Sounds intuitive, right? Be inclusive and funny, and you're a good leader. You'll put people at ease, make them feel like you "get" them and that you know what you're doing.

As my philosophy professor used to say: "I think you are putting Descartes before des horse."

In the new study, conducted from the University of Missouri, researchers wanted to test the effect of negative humor on leadership. They found a startling thing -- negative humor worked as well as positive humor. The reason, they found, is that we've been viewing the relationship between humor and leadership backwards.

This time, researchers surveyed 70 leaders and 241 subordinates from 54 organizations and asked a few important extra questions. Subordinates were asked about their relationship with their bosses. What the study found was that a good relationship with the boss meant that both positive and negative humor worked. It was considered funny, and it built engagement and feelings of inclusion and all the good stuff we have come to like from humor in leadership. However, if the relationship between the leader and the subordinate was not already strong, humor fell flat regardless of whether it was positive or negative.

In other words, it isn't that good leaders use humor to build relationships. It is that we already see them as good leaders, so the humor helps. It is a crucial difference if you want to be a good leader. Walk in a new room firing jokes, and you may turn out to be the joke to your new team.

"The findings suggest that if leaders wish to integrate humor into their interactions with subordinates, they should first assess whether or not their subordinates are likely to interpret their humorous overtures positively," one of the researchers, Christopher Robert, said in a press release. "If a good relationship between the leader and the subordinate exists, then humor -- be it positive or negative in tone -- will only help to maintain the good relationship."

The takeaway for leaders is the same as it is for stand-up comedians -- know your room. If your work relationship is new or if it's a long-running one that has gone south, other approaches will work better than humor. Try some good old-fashioned communication and transparency.

If you've got a good relationship with your team, chances are you have the fundamentals down and can sprinkle in the jokes to keep your environment loose and fun.

Being quick with a joke isn't a replacement for old-fashioned leadership. It is a symptom or sign you've already made it.

About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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