Humor as a Leadership Tool - Taking Laughter Seriously

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour Allan Filipowicz wrote his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the influence humour could have on performance in task-based interactions. He found that humour, used both proactively and reactively in small group situations, could greatly facilitate communication in what can be difficult interpersonal situations. The author focuses on humour's occasional ability to ease communication through a combination of three mechanisms: conveying information, generating affect, and drawing attention to the speaker.

by Allan Filipowicz
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour Allan Filipowicz wrote his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the influence humour could have on performance in task-based interactions. He found that humour, used both proactively and reactively in small group situations, could greatly facilitate communication in what can be difficult interpersonal situations.

The author focuses on humour's occasional ability to ease communication through a combination of three mechanisms: conveying information, generating affect, and drawing attention to the speaker. Humour offers a rare ability for the speaker both to convey a certain message, and to offer information as to how the message should be interpreted. Since most people will feel that humour should not be taken too seriously, the normal rules of personal interaction are seen as temporarily suspended. Both the speaker and the receiver are therefore largely "off the hook" should any problems arise.

Non-offensive humour also tends to put people in a good mood, which usually makes them more cooperative and less likely to be conflictual. Obviously, this makes communication easier. The author cites several recent observational studies, including a survey of advertising executives showing that 95 percent of them see humour as an excellent way of gaining attention, enabling them to emphasise key points they want to convey. Filipowicz does offer a few cautionary notes, however; he urges the speaker to ask himself three questions first before attempting anything overtly "funny". He also probes the ways in which humour can be used to in a team situation, particularly as an indicator of underlying group processes.

Filipowicz also discusses the impact of humour on the listener, particularly one in a leadership position. One should pay attention to how humour may be used to introduce a potentially contentious matter into a conversation or negotiation. And for managers, how does one's ability to "take a joke" affect overall communications channels, especially with subordinates?

The author also examines situations in which humour may point out certain types of fault lines in interpersonal contact, and explains how "stress-related" humour and laughter can actually often hamper a person's negotiating capacities.

Leadership, Winter 2003

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