Humour Can Make You A Better Workplace Leader, If You Use It Properly Here's How

Author: Charmine Hartel

(MENAFN- The Conversation) When asked to describe an ideal organisational leader, many people might be inclined to use quite serious adjectives such as solemn, determined or results-oriented.

Yet one trait is not only often overlooked, but also essential for managers.

Humour – whether it manifests as a funny anecdote, joke, performance or witty remark – is a crucial tool for good leadership.

When used well, humour can increase employees' psychological empowerment, job performance and wellbeing, and also make people perceive their leaders as more effective.

But many managers are not humour-savvy. As a result, humour is often used ad hoc rather than as a tool. And because humour can be risky if misunderstood or misinterpreted, some leaders avoid using it at all.

Our recently published paper introduces a humour toolkit specifically for organisational leaders. Its primary goal is to deepen the understanding of the humour process. It's about the“why”,“when” and“how” of using humour in a leadership context.

What is humour?

Most people have a good intuition for what humour is, but it can be a hard thing to put a finger on.

We define humour as“any form of communication that creates unexpected or surprising meanings, resulting in amusement for the listeners or audience”.

Leaders' humour is therefore any message, verbal or nonverbal, shared by a leader which is – importantly – funny or amusing to the employee.

Effective use of humour by leaders can increase employee performance and satisfaction.

Paul Malone's seminal work on humour in the workplace called on leaders to use humour not just because it's fun, but also as a tool to increase employees' satisfaction and performance.

Where appropriate, this could include intentionally sharing a funny anecdote during a meeting, incorporating humour into an email, giving a funny pep talk to the sales team, or using amusing mimes to communicate instructions.

But leaders' humour can also be unintentional, such as a sudden slip of the tongue during a presentation that makes the audience laugh. Both types of humour can help employees feel motivated, appreciated and less stressed at work.

Using humour effectively at work

At an academic level, there are two key elements of a“workplace humour event”: humour creation and humour appreciation.

Humour needs to be appropriate to the context and the task. GaudiLab/Shutterstock

It starts with a humour creator – in our case a leader – who, based on their intentions, delivers humour through a suitable channel (verbal or written) to an employee, and receives a response.

But the success of this interaction – humour appreciation – is influenced deeply by the quality of the relationship between the leader and employee and the context in which it occurs – the organisational culture, what an employee is doing and who else is present.

The employee's characteristics, such as gender, cultural background and responsiveness to humour, are also important factors in how humour will be received.

Employees are more likely to appreciate leaders' humour if:

  • they have a high-quality, trusting relationship with the leader
  • they perceive that the leader used humour with positive intentions
  • the humour is appropriate to the situation
  • the joke is inoffensive to them or others.

    Delivering humour effectively is like any other storytelling. A leader must master the art of delivering a humorous message, using an appropriate tone of voice, stance, and range of facial and bodily expressions, with a particular emphasis on timing the punchline for maximum impact.

    Leaders must also be able to listen and respond to their employees and stay attuned to the different emotional responses that different types of humour elicit from different employees.

    Dos and don'ts for leaders when using humour

    Using humour constructively in the workplace centres on paying close attention to relationships and effectively adjusting to different people and contexts. It should only be used with mutually constructive intentions.

    Here are some general guidelines:


  • Get to know employees and develop trusting relationships before using humour with them. This helps to match humour type with employee characteristics.
  • Regularly weave humour into interactions with employees to bring about desired work outcomes.
  • Allow employees to respond back with humour.


  • Humour is counterproductive in instances where employees' lives are threatened, or in dire or catastrophic situations.
  • Never use negative humour (such as sarcasm or aggressive humour) that bullies or belittles employees.
  • Don't aim to be a stand-up comedian at work. Be natural and spontaneous.
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