Transformational leaders who are utilizing humor are more effective in winning trust and affective commitment from their followers. However, not every leadership style is similarly suited to employ humor as a co-existing leadership characteristic. Several types of humor have to be differentiated, such as, for example, constructive and aggressive humor. Shared laughter avoids conflict, creates teams and sparks innovation. Despite cultural specifics in how followers appreciate leaders’ humor, effective leaders globally may employ humor as a powerful means to harness emotional and diplomatic effects that enable the formation of positive leader-follower exchanges and the leadership of change.
Humor and Leadership: A Bi-directional Relationship
Research has not yet managed to compile a holistic theory of humor and is continuing to study the influences of humor in leader-follower relationships . The expression of positive, such as affiliative , constructive , and self-deprecating humor as a leader’s offer to bridge authority gaps between him and his followers  might increase acceptance of leadership. The effect is two-sided, i.e., a leader’s humor can improve the leader-follower relationship and consequently also creates the atmosphere supportive for further use of humor by the subordinate too that, which on its part reinforces the positive emotions involved on both sides . Transformational leaders who are utilizing humor are more effective in winning trust and affective commitment from their followers .
Matching Types of Humor and Leadership
For leaders who set clear expectations related to goals and rewards, humor increases their effectiveness. Interestingly, these leaders are perceived even more persuasive when they use aggressive humor that is pointing to a common threat . However, aggressive humor causes defamation, decry, disrespect, embarrassment, and ridicule of groups and individuals . An aggressive and offensive humor style potentially creates the feeling of exclusion , but only among those followers who are not in favor with the leader . For the targets of aggressive humor, the results are often negative impacts on private and professional life, such as related to performance, attendance, safety, and health . Leaders with a rather laissez-fair style can’t afford humor style as it may be seen as a tactic of self-enhancement and a proof for taking the situation not seriously enough . Such dependencies also depend on followers’ need for certainty and guidance; light-heartedness in the form of humor may better resonate with followers who need less structure .
The Usefulness of an Organizational “Jester”
The use of humor as a specific aspect of leadership processes can be used to produce shared laughter that is allowing to raise critical topics in a group in a conflict-alleviating way ; ; . Scientific experiments showed that the stimulation of laughter increased the subsequent creativity of study participants thanks to better mood and a sense of safe environment . The Hallmark Card Company in Kansas City introduced an organizational role with the unofficial description of “jester” that used humorous storytelling in leadership workshops, e.g., in the form of caricatures, to disarray gridlocked hierarchical structures in the firm and foster innovation . While storytelling is helpful to soften unnecessary direct critique, it can also be misused to disinform followers .
Humor appreciation depends on cultural context
The extent to which different cultures value humor as a related leadership characteristic may vary significantly. For example, Chinese employees, compared to US workers, emphasize more seriousness than humor in a “serious” work environment to build leader-follower relationships . In conclusion, though, effective leaders globally may employ humor to create emotional and diplomatic effects enabling the lead of change .
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