Humour and Leadership

Leaders in today’s cut throat world of corporate industry face an enormous challenge. In the midst of achieving the organisation’s goals and pursuing profits, how do leaders build teamwork, motivate their subordinates, convey their sometimes demanding managerial concerns and reduce stress in a way that produces positivity and productivity? Is it possible to be serious at work without actually being serious at work? To answer this question, this essay will look at research surrounding leadership characteristics and investigate how humour can practically have an impact on leadership effectiveness.
How do we define humour? Humour is a verbal or nonverbal activity eliciting a positive cognitive or affective response from listeners and must be connected to context in order to be truly funny. The definition includes puns, jokes, stories, anecdotes, physical actions etc (Meyer, 1990). According to Sarros and Barker (2003), humour is the ability to invoke laughter or see the funny side of a painful predicament. In their study of Australian managers, Sarros and Barker (2003) established that the character attribute of humour was rated the second highest behind integrity.
Humour may seem an unlikely component for a leader, however Barker and Coy (2003) also recognised the importance of humour. They identified seven virtues by which Australian executives could be identified and humour was included. Eckert and Vehar (2000) state: “It’s possible to do serious work without being serious. In fact, it’s actually counterproductive to do it any other way. Research on environments that foster innovation shows that playfulness and humour are critically supportive elements. We can be serious about what we’re doing without taking ourselves seriously, and we must. With humour in the workplace being established as a component for effective leadership, the way in which it is used needs to be looked at. According to Anderson (2011), humour is best when it is used deliberately, and advises it to be planned but flow naturally according to one’s personality. There are many opportunities for humor to be used. While the telling of a joke is a good starting point, humour that uplifts is much more positive and this can occur during speeches, within memos or even at the conclusion of an email (Avolia et al 1999).

There are many benefits as to why a leader would use humour in the workplace. According to Davis and Kleiner (1989), humour has the potential to achieve three outcomes, these are, 1. Stress Reduction in the workplace, 2. Conveying managerial concerns and 3. Motivating employees. Hughes and Avey (2009) add weight to this as their research suggests that when a leader uses humour, they elicit a greater commitment from their followers to the organisation and build a much deeper level of trust.
Furthermore Holmes and Marra’s (2006) research on humour in the work place identified a wide range of functions including the use of humour as a solidarity strategy, establishing, maintaining and developing workplace relationships and contributing to the process of creating a sense of team through humour as a subversive strategy, contesting, challenging and undermining the achievement of workplace objectives. Humour in the workplace is incredibly profitable for some organisations. According to Stevenson (2004) organisations are starting to see the important role that humour plays towards leadership, motivation, innovation and creativity.
Some of these initiatives have been stated by Morreall (1983) and include such organisations as Kodak and Price Waterhouse establishing humour rooms within their buildings. He goes on to add that because humour has such a profound affect on the body, even hospitals are using it to enhance the healing process. You could argue that God, through Solomon’s writings, has always been aware of the powerful impact humour can have; “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. ” Proverbs 17 v 22 (TNIV 2005).
I am currently working as a youth worker for a not for profit organisation. The nature of working in community welfare can be at times be extremely serious, so to counter the seriousness our team have written into our yearly plan to include times of spontaneous dancing in the office. Not that anyone can seem to dance with any real coordination or skill. However it’s exactly the opposite and it allows our team to laugh at and with each other as a way of building morale and combating stress relief. Not all leaders are funny and not all humour is effective.
When a leader tries too hard to be funny, it has the potential to undermine their leadership. If the humour is seen as sarcastic or mean spirited, it will certainly alienate staff (Sala 2003). In a list of cautions given by Jonas (2004), who agrees with the idea that humour should be handled like hazardous material, the list of cautions include: Aggressive or put down humour which attacks people or humour based on topics which centre on sex or illegal activity. One would have to include humour which degrades gender and humour which slanders religious beliefs also.
Avolio, Howell and Sosik (1999) found that some employee’s view the use of humor to be inconsistent with the seriousness of the issues being examined and, depending upon the circumstances, the inappropriate use of humor may have detracted from, rather than contributing to, the eventual outcomes. In some instances, Avolio et al. also believe the use of humour leads employees to view their leaders as insensitive to their needs. When a leader uses humour, there is significant potential for good outcomes.
Humour has the ability to go beneath the surface and affect the working environment to such an extent that organisations are seeing the benefit of including ‘humour rooms’ within their organisation. A simple joke about work which is shared among colleagues has the potential to build solidarity and form a bond between colleagues which in turn provides a more positive working environment and greater productivity. While there are some dangers in using humour, however a leader who uses humour wisely can most certainly have an effective and positive impact in their workplace.

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