3 Ways Humor Can Be Used as a Leadership Tool

April 27, 2022

In today’s challenging business environment, organizations need to balance the requirement of meeting bottom-line targets while also investing in high-performing, supportive cultures and teams. Building and sustaining an engaging and supportive culture in a mostly hybrid work environment can be difficult. One way leaders can accomplish this is by embracing humor as a means of building team camaraderie and reducing stress.

As Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas emphasize in their critically acclaimed book, Humor, Seriously, humor does not hinder team performance or undermine professionalism. It can help employers balance authority and approachability, better navigate difficult conversations, promote creativity – and help mold emerging leaders.

Humanizing Yourself in the Eyes of Your Employees

Managers, especially new ones, take their leadership role very seriously, which can sometimes make them overcompensate in their management style by appearing stiff and unapproachable to their teams. Our advice to emerging leaders is to embrace their humanness, be willing to display vulnerability and use humor as a tool to keep things light from time to time.

A recent study found that “leaders who use self-deprecating humor are rated higher on measures of both trustworthiness and leadership ability by their employees.” People, in other words, have greater faith in those who do not take themselves too seriously. Humor has proven to be (believe it or not) a critical leadership trait. One great example of an individual who understands this well is Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who rose from a career as a comedian to become the 21st Century’s most effective global statesmen as he effectively rallies world option in support of his country’s fight against Russian aggression.

Persuading Others to Come Around to Your Way of Thinking

There are plenty of times when being in charge can be daunting, especially in situations where it is essential to rally employees around a controversial or polarizing issue. The ‘my way or the highway’ approach may be effective in the short term in terms of getting people to do what you say, but it comes at the cost of potentially tarnishing your reputation as a leader who inspires rather than intimidates underlings. Persuasive humor, on the other hand, is much more effective in inspiring others to shift toward your viewpoint. This is brilliantly illustrated in a story that Heidi Roizen, longtime Silicon Valley executive, shared with Aaker and Bagdonas:

“Early in her tenure on the board of a public technology company, Roizen found herself dealing with a delicate problem during meetings: Every time a group would return from a break, she’d realize that her colleagues had been continuing discussions—and even making decisions—in the men’s room…So one day, as the board left the meeting room for a break, she said simply, ‘If you guys continue this conversation in the men’s room…I’ll come in.’ Her approach was simple, lighthearted, disarming—and successful. Roizen says that the line got a laugh, and that her colleagues made the change she wanted.”

Fostering the Kind of Culture that Will Make People Say, “I Like My Job”

Studies show that trust in leadership has been steadily eroding for decades. However, according to a 2018 Gallup report, “an approachable manager can increase employee engagement by more than 30 percent. Moreover, employees who feel they can open up and talk to their manager about non-work-related issues are seven times more engaged than those who felt non-work conversations were off limits.”

Leaders and their management styles have an inordinate amount of influence on corporate cultures, and so the onus is on them to ensure that those cultures promote organizational creativity, peer engagement, and anything else that might give their employees a morale boost.

Levity in the workplace isn’t about being gratuitously funny—office humor rarely is—it’s about making people feel comfortable in their work environment and motivated to do their best on behalf of leaders they respect and enjoy engaging with. We are at our best when we feel confident enough to make mistakes, and we tend to make them less often when we trust that those in charge won’t admonish us if we do.

At WCG, we pride ourselves on building a company culture that fosters not only tomorrow’s leaders, but also creates today’s memorable moments with teammates. To learn more about opportunities at our agency, e-mail us at


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