The Power And Danger Of Using Humor When Leading People

Humor is a really powerful tool in a leadership toolbox. It can defuse stressful situations, build rapport and create environment that people love. It is a good servant but it can be a bad master. So what are the things where humor on workplace helps and what are the dangers and how to avoid them?

The power

  1. Building rapport – one of the most powerful tools in building report is a use of light humor. And I don’t mean telling dirty jokes but rather sprinkle the conversation with short humorous anecdotes or phrases. The most common would be using funny anecdotes from your life or short quotes from movies or books that the rest of the team is familiar with and can relate to. A bit of self-deprecation also don’t hurt as it shows you are confident and willing to laugh at yourself.
  2. Creating a positive atmosphere – closely related to the first point. When you are always smiling a bit cheerful the rest of the team will follow in your steps. You can create environment where people like to smile, joke around and feel relaxed while keeping a razor sharp focus on their work.
  3. Building excitement – this one is a bit tricky but you can create a lot of excitement in a task or activity just by turning something that is inherently boring into something we can joke about to push our mind to more positive direction away from the mindlessness of the task. This way people can get over tedious tasks with relative ease and not complain about it much.
  4. Relieving stress – this one is obvious. Humor is a great tool in defusing difficult situations. Typically in the times when things don’t go as planned, you are missing deadlines, project is a mess and you need to mobilize your team humor can help, just make sure everyone still understands the seriousness of situation. You may have a meeting where the difficult situation is being discussed, you can open with some humorous icebreaker but then turn serious and the whole meeting including conclusion and action steps is focused on business. When people leave they need to understand that situation shouldn’t be taken lightly. After the meeting you may go to your team and lighten up the mood with a bit of humor while reminding everyone the urgency.
  5. Having fun – I love what I do because I have a lot of fun doing it. And that means among other things that I need to feel relaxed, I need to work in informal atmosphere where people don’t need to constantly watch what they are saying. Creating place where people not only work but also enjoy it and have some fun is one of the best retention tools you have in your leadership arsenal.

The danger

  1. Offending others with a different sense of humor – not everyone will laugh at your jokes and that is just fine. However, you should never get into a situation that someone feels offended. Refrain from making jokes about race, gender, age, religion, or even some personal preferences and lifestyle choices. When you think about it there is not much left. You can venture into some of the risky topics with people you know well but even then you need to be extra careful and outside of earshot of others. And if you do that you can set a dangerous precedent for the person and he or she will believe it is ok to joke about that stuff. So again, think twice whether it is worth the risk.
  2. Offending others from different cultures – we live in connected world and people with different cultural background consider different things funny. Something that you or your culture finds funny and makes no big deal of can be highly offensive in another culture. The best way to cross this gap is to find someone who grew up in the other culture but already spend enough time in your culture so can compare and point out the differences.
  3. Focusing it on a single target over and over – this is one I struggle with from time to time. You have on your team couple of guys with great sense of humor, very close to you, so you know they will not be offended if you make well intentioned fun of them every now and then. That is all nice and good if the person feels the same way. They may even like it at the beginning if they know you don’t mean it and in fact it is a way of showing you care. However, you act from the side of power, so you can never be sure that they don’t take it personally and are just afraid to speak up. Also you may do it way too often so it starts feeling to them (or to the rest of the team) that you are picking on them. When you are trending in that direction you need to stop, apologize and keep an eye on yourself as the well intentioned humorous remarks could easily turn into bullying someone on the team.
  4. Laughing at someone instead of with someone – this is a big no-no. Laughing at others for their perceived incompetence or appearance is a total abuse of humor and should never happen. If you do this even once you will ostracize the person, create a dangerous precedent so the rest of the team will start acting the same way and eventually humiliate the person and push him out of the team. This can create a really toxic environment so you need to make sure that when making jokes about others they are on-board. The safest is to joke about other people’s skills or attitude that are stellar and unquestionable and everyone knows it. The moment you start joking about someone’s weaknesses you are on a slippery slope.
  5. Turning yourself into a clown – I love self-deprecating humor. It is safe, you cannot really offend others since the target of your jokes is yourself. I find it a great way to show others that I don’t mind being the target of well-intentioned jokes and that I’m just a human being open to feedback. However, you as a leader need to make sure you don’t overdo it. The last thing you want is to turn into a clown that no one takes seriously. So even the self-deprecating humor should target your skills and traits that are either your strengths or that simply don’t matter in the given context.

What is your recipe for using humor in workplace? When did it help and when did it turned against you? Is there a situation where you would never try to use a bit of humor?

Photo: Shutterstock, Inc.

Categories: Communication, Leadership

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1 reply


  1. Communication Shouldn’t Be Efficient | The Geeky Leader

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