Humor in Leadership

Humor in leadership is probably the one aspect of leadership you never, ever think about unless it’s presented to you.

Well, here it is, I’m presenting it to you now.

Why humor in leadership?

Because it’s one of the most effective way to deal with stress, to reduce it for yourself and for your team.

Think about a deadline approaching: all of a sudden there’s more work to do than you’d think, and you have to bring everyone on board.

Your team is doing overtime, is stressed and is worried.

That’s where humor comes in, that’s when you, the leader, bring humor into the mix, you can make a difference: you can reduce the amount of stress everyone is under, energize others and yourself and motivate them towards their goal.

All clear? Not quite.

There are good ways of using humor and bad ones, and the kicker is: you have no idea whether your way of using humor is a good one for the job or not.

4 main humor styles

Starting from the beginning: there are four humor styles: two are related to yourself, two are related to others; two are positive, two are negative.

  1. Self-enhancing humor is positive and related to yourself: it basically means being able to look at the ironic side of things when everything is going wrong. Finding the funny in the absurdity and laughing at yourself in a healthy way about it – knowing how to be happy at work in a way.
  2. Self-defeating humor is negative and related to yourself: it means underlining bad traits of your character in order to be accepted by others, for example making a fool of yourself in order to make others laugh – it’s begging for acceptance basically.
  3. Affiliative humor is positive and related to others: it’s banter at its core, it’s exchanging healthy jokes with others, having a good laugh with your friends while joking around.
  4. Aggressive humor is negative and related to others: it encompasses everything from sarcasm to unacceptable behaviour like making sexist or racist jokes. It basically is about putting others down with a funny spin on top.

We all use a mix of these four styles, key is understanding which one is predominant and being aware of it.

Go back to the example I had given (deadline approaching and everyone stressed) – what style would work here?

  1. Aggressive? Probably not, people under stress don’t need to be made fun of.
  2. Self-defeating? Also not, your team needs a leader, not a clown.
  3. Affiliative? Maybe, a good, healthy level of humor can make the whole situation lighter, and more bearable, as long as you’re not distracting others.
  4. Self-enhancing? Definitely, especially if you mix it with affiliative, Imagine intervening with sentences like “isn’t it ironic how we all ended up in this mess? Hey, maybe electricity cuts off as well, wouldn’t that be weird? Come on, we’ll all laugh at ourselves when all of this is over!”

Clearly this is an example, don’t take it verbatim but imagine it coherent with your persona and appropriate at that moment…

Bringing humor in leadership

So the only question to be answered is: what is your humor style?

To test it, head over to a website called and take their test. It takes about 10 minutes and the result will tell you what your preferred way of having fun is.

Is your humor self-enhancing and affiliative? Great, those are great traits for a leader, and chances are you are nailing it at creative leadership as well (humor and leadership are heavily connected).

Is your humor aggressive and self-defeating? Not great, you may want to do something about it!

Oh and one last thing: don’t assume you know – you can’t know for sure unless you have an external appraisal about it. Don’t trust your guts in other words: go and take the test!

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