Leadership & People
Opinion Article
February 17, 2022

Humor in Leadership: Does leader humor style matter and to whom?

One of the themes that has always fascinated me is the use of humor as a management tool. Although a few years ago it might have been seen as an odd topic (is there even a place for humor in serious organizations?), nowadays some of the most successful companies use it as part of their DNA. See the culture of and marketing campaigns designed by Southwest Airlines, and it will be clear. As The Washington Post wrote about it a couple of years ago:“Southwest’s plan to conquer the airline industry, one joke at a time; The airline’s work culture is quirky, trusting and helping it become a wild success story.” It is such a powerful tool that Stanford GSB teaches a course on the topic entitled Humor: Serious Business. However, there are still several unanswered questions, namely regarding how leader humor works and to whom it is most beneficial/harmful.  


In this study we examined whether positive leader humor styles (affiliative and self-enhancing) helped create trust in the supervisor, with consequences for performance and deviant behaviors, while we predicted the opposite effect for negative humor styles (aggressive and delf-defeating). The underlying rationale is that positive humor signals trustworthiness and triggers a desire to repay the positive treatment in kind, whether by improving work or by avoiding to engage in destructive behaviors. On the other hand, negative humor would signal that the leader lacks self-confidence and does not care about the welfare of others and would trigger destructive behaviors as well as lowered performance as a response.


We also wanted to test one final assumption: the idea that humor might be more important – whether positively or negatively – to some people compared to others. We predicted that subordinates’ self-view would play an important role in this equation, as it would make some individuals more open to the benefits of humor and others more vulnerable to the harmful consequences of a poor use of humor. We looked at core self-evaluations, that is, whether individuals have higher levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy, lower levels of neuroticism, and an internal locus of control, as a reflection of this positive self-view.


We conducted our study with a sample of 514 employed individuals and their supervisors from 19 organizations operating in diverse sectors in Portugal. Our findings broadly supported our hypotheses.  


The main results showed that:

• Affiliative and self-enhancing humor are positively related to trust in the supervisor, and these effects are stronger for subordinates with a negative self-view, with positive consequences for individual performance;

• Aggressive and self-defeating humor are negatively related to trust in the supervisor, regardless of the subordinate’s self-view, thereby decreasing individual performance;

• Self-enhancing humor reduces deviant behaviors, while self-defeating humor is associated with more deviant behaviors.


What does this mean in practice?

• When leaders use negative humor (aggressive or self-defeating), they destroy employee trust and impair performance;

• When leaders use positive humor (affiliative or self-enhancing), they help build trust, particularly for vulnerable individuals that often have difficulties in establishing trusting relationships due to their negative self-image.


Why should organizations and managers care?

• It shows leader humor matters. Positive leader humor helps sustain relationships in the workplace and improves employee behavior especially for vulnerable individuals;

•  It also shows leader humor can backfire if poorly used. Negative leader humor styles are harmful, soit is not about ‘using humor at all costs’ but rather using it properly and adjusted to context.

This means organizations should not just tolerate humor, but effectively train their members – especially (prospective) leaders – to understand the differences between humor styles and take advantage of the benefits of positive humor. Of course, such training only works if the culture of the organization also signals that there is a place for humor.


So it seems that, as Beard (2014) has described in rather simple terms, “the workplace needs laughter” (p. 130) and probably leadership is a good place to start, as long as the differences between humor styles are taken into account.  


You can see the original post here.



Neves, P., & Karagonlar, G. (2021). Does leader humor style matter and to whom? Journal of Managerial Psychology, 35, 115-128.

Pedro Neves

Pedro Neves

Professor at Nova SBE | Academic director of the Nova SBE Fellowship for Excellence program

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