Humor as an Effective Leadership Strategy


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 [1]. The expression of positive, such as affiliative [2], constructive [3], and self-deprecating humor as a leader’s offer to bridge authority gaps between him and his followers [4] 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 [5]. Transformational leaders who are utilizing humor are more effective in winning trust and affective commitment from their followers [6].

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 [3]. However, aggressive humor causes defamation, decry, disrespect, embarrassment, and ridicule of groups and individuals [7]. An aggressive and offensive humor style potentially creates the feeling of exclusion [8], but only among those followers who are not in favor with the leader [9]. 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 [7]. 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 [3]. 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 [10].

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 [11]; [12]; [13]. 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 [14]. 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 [15]. While storytelling is helpful to soften unnecessary direct critique, it can also be misused to disinform followers [1].

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 [16]. In conclusion, though, effective leaders globally may employ humor to create emotional and diplomatic effects enabling the lead of change [17].


[1] Auvinen, T. P., Lamsa, A., Sintonen, T., & Takala, T. (2013). Leadership Manipulation and Ethics in Storytelling. Journal Of Business Ethics, 116(2), 415-431.

[2] Pundt, A., & Herrmann, F. (2015). Affiliative and aggressive humour in leadership and their relationship to leader-member exchange. Journal Of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 88(1), 108-125. doi:10.1111/joop.12081

[3] Tremblay, M. )., & Gibson, M. ). (2016). The Role of Humor in the Relationship Between Transactional Leadership Behavior, Perceived Supervisor Support, and Citizenship Behavior. Journal Of Leadership And Organizational Studies, 23(1), 39-54. doi:10.1177/1548051815613018

[4] Hoption, C. )., Barling, J. )., & Turner, N. ). (2013). “It’s not you, it’s me”: transformational leadership and self deprecating humor. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 34(1), 4-19. doi:10.1108/01437731311289947

[5] Maruyama丸山, 淳., & Fuji 藤, 桂. (2017). 職場におけるフォロワーが表出するユーモアの循環的影響. (Japanese). Japanese Journal Of Psychology, 88(4), 317. doi:10.4992/jjpsy.88.15076

[6] Hughes, L., & Avey, J. (2009). Transforming with levity: Humor, leadership, and follower attitudes. Leadership And Organization Development Journal, 30(6), 540-562. doi:10.1108/01437730910981926

[7] Huo, Y., Lam, W., & Chen, Z. (2012). Am I the Only One This Supervisor is Laughing at? Effects of Aggressive Humor on Employee Strain and Addictive Behaviors. Personnel Psychology, 65(4), 859. doi:10.1111/peps.12004

[8] Tremblay, M. (2017). Humor in Teams: Multilevel Relationships Between Humor Climate, Inclusion, Trust, and Citizenship Behaviors. Journal Of Business & Psychology, 32(4), 363-378. doi:10.1007/s10869-016-9445-x

[9] Robert, C. )., Dunne, T. )., & Iun, J. ). (2015). The Impact of Leader Humor on Subordinate Job Satisfaction: The Crucial Role of Leader–Subordinate Relationship Quality. Group And Organization Management, 41(3), 375-406. doi:10.1177/1059601115598719

[10] Pundt, A., & Venz, L. (2017). Personal need for structure as a boundary condition for humor in leadership. Journal Of Organizational Behavior, 38(1), 87-107. doi:10.1002/job.2112

[11] Holmes, J. (2007). Humour and the construction of Māori leadership at work. Leadership, 3(1), 5-27. doi:10.1177/1742715007073061

[12] Watson, C., & Drew, V. (2017). Humour and laughter in meetings: Influence, decision-making and the emergence of leadership. Discourse And Communication, 11(3), 314-329. doi:10.1177/1750481317699432

[13] Purcell, D., Heitmeier, B., & Van Wyhe, C. (2017). Critical Geopolitics and the Framing of the Arab Spring Through Late-Night Humor. Social Science Quarterly (Wiley-Blackwell), 98(2), 513-531. doi:10.1111/ssqu.12296

[14] Teske, J., Clausen, C. K., Gray, P., Smith, L. L., Al Subia, S., Rod Szabo, M., & … Rule, A. C. (2017). Creativity of third graders’ leadership cartoons: Comparison of mood-enhanced to neutral conditions. Thinking Skills And Creativity, 23217-226. doi:10.1016/j.tsc.2017.02.003

[15] Bleich, M. R. (2014). The jester of leadership. Journal Of Continuing Education In Nursing, 45(9), 382-383. doi:10.3928/00220124-20140825-13

[16] Yang, I. )., Kitchen, P. )., & Bacouel-Jentjens, S. ). (2017). How to promote relationship-building leadership at work? A comparative exploration of leader humor behavior between North America and China. International Journal Of Human Resource Management, 28(10), 1454-1474. doi:10.1080/09585192.2015.1089065

[17] Vetter, L., & Gockel, C. (2016). Can’t buy me laughter – Humour in organisational change. Gruppe. Interaktion. Organisation. Zeitschrift Fur Angewandte Organisationspsychologie, 47(4), 313-320. doi:10.1007/s11612-016-0341-7

  • Humor is a great way to break the ice and to keep things light in the face of stress

  • I am thinking a lot of this lately, since I had an argument with someone about how I feel humor never should be used in an offensive way. Sure, we don’t have to be serious all the times, but to me there is ‘humor’ and ‘humor’. I think your article explains it perfectly.