Laughing (with) leaders: different leadership styles, different humor outcomes

The organizational psychology of humor is one of my key interests in the field. This post opens a series of related texts discussing theories and research on how humor influences organizational outcomes, work satisfaction, leaders’ effectiveness, teamwork, and many, many more. So, dear readers, given that most of you experienced some form of humor at work – and even more so in case you haven’t! – stay tuned for more organizational psychology of humor.


Humor has been related to a number of positive effects when used by leaders: improved morale among workers (Gruner 1997), enhanced group cohesiveness (Duncan 1982), and even a positive impact on larger organizational outcomes (Christopher and Yan 2005).

However, the relationship between humor and leadership is a rather complex affair and researchers Avolio, Howell and Sosik (1999) sought to investigate exactly how complex it can get: They examined links between different leadership styles, the use of humor and performance in a large financial institution in Canada.

The results confirmed some of their assumptions and common believes – the leader’s use of humor was positively related to two measures of performance: higher individual performance (leader’s effectiveness evaluated by his/her followers, i.e. subordinates) and the overall unit performance.

But, it’s not all that simple: The conclusions get more complex when different leadership styles are included in the picture:

The transformational leadership style (focus on employers’ motivation and identity, challenging and inspiring subordinates) and the low use of humor were related to better individual leader’s results. In turn, high use of humor with this leadership style led to a better performance of the whole unit and… lower individual results! Does this mean that if a transformational leader makes you laugh often, he somehow loses that mystical guru-aura, but adds to the overall group performance? I wonder if “undermining” one’s status, e.g. using a delicate form of self-defeating humor – like self-irony – diminishes the status-differences and also permits for more ascending feedback (something the leaders I worked with often mentioned)?

On the other hand, high use of humor by transactional leaders (who focus on setting goals, providing feedback, resources and rewards) was negatively related to performance on both the individual and unit level. The authors attribute that to the specific conditions in the organization they did their research in at that time, e.g. to the CEO of the company, who very often stressed the needs for cuts while still achieving higher goals (guess 1999 – the year the research was conducted – wasn’t much different in terms of corporate mantras than the post-2008, financial crisis era). Thus, the employees might have looked upon using humor while setting or managing goals achievement – a point at a transactional leader would typically use humor – as inappropriate or inconsistent, given how seriously these issues were treated generally in the organization.

Last but not least (or maybe… the least, actually), the laizzes-affaire leadership style (the “absent leader”; delegating tasks while providing little or no help to complete them) was negatively related to the use of humor and performance alike, meaning that this type of leaders used humor the least and achieved the lowest performance-scores.

The authors acknowledge several limitations to the study, one being that the different humor styles used by the leaders, i.e. how the leaders used humor, were not measured in the study.

A more recent study by the Bell Leadership Institute in Chapel Hill, NC, USA (Bell Leadership Institute 2012) seems to have taken a step in that direction.

The results point to that the most effective leaders use humor to “spark people’s enthusiasm, deliver an honest message in a good-natured way, boost productivity, put people at ease, bring teams together, and see the light side of a situation” (which one could ad hoc relate to Martin’s affiliative and self-enhancing humor styles). On the other hand, the less effective leaders in the study used humor “to show off, cut people down with sarcasm (Martin’s aggressive humor style?), and overly distract people from the task at hand (sounds a lot like the Office’s David Brent character, doesn’t it?).

The study has not been published yet, so I am not sure whether my comparisons to Martin’s humor styles theory are 100% accurate, but I am sure it will be a good read (and with more than 2,700 employees taking part!) It will be published in one of the Dr. Bell’s upcoming books.


Another caveat that the authors did not mention, but which comes to mind and is true for much of humor research, is that they did not measure whether the leaders used successful humor or not.



Avolio, B. J., Howell, J. M., & Sosik, J. T. (1999). A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bottom Line: Humor as a Moderator of Leadership Style Effects. The Academy of Management Journal, 42(2), 219-227. Retrieved from

Bell Leadership Institute. (2012, March). Bell Leadership Study Finds Humor Gives Leaders the Edge. Retrieved from BELL Leadership Institute News & Press Releases:

Christopher, R., & Yan, W. (2005). Why Would a Duck Walk into a Bar? A Theoretical Examination of Humor and Culture in Organizations. Proceedings of the Academy of Management. Honolulu, HI.

Gruner, C. R. (1997). The game of humor: A comprehensive theory of why we laugh. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Martin, A. R., Puhlik-Doris, P., Larsen, G., Gray, J., & Weir, K. (2003). Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality(37), 48-75.

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