One rarely discussed leadership tool is humor. That’s probably because it’s hard to do well and so easy to do badly. However, research shows that not only does the leader benefit by appropriately expressing their sense of humor, but doing so also makes the company more profitable.
According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, “Humor [at work] has been linked with successful leadership, with increases in profit and work compliance, with a successful business culture, with message and goal clarity in managerial presentations, with improvement in group problem-solving, and with reducing emotional stress due to threats and role conflict at work.”
Humor also helps create a culture of innovation. Michael Kerr, an international business speaker, author, and president of Humor at Work, says “Humor is a key ingredient in creative thinking. It helps people play with ideas, lower their internal critic, and see things in new ways.” Humor and creativity are both about looking at your challenges in novel ways and about making new connections you’ve never thought about before, he adds.
Humor—deftly employed—is a great way to win friends and influence people. To be effective, leaders need to be funny without crossing the line into snarkiness or offensiveness. One of the best approaches is to be self-deprecating. It works because it minimizes status distinctions. A study on transformational leadership conducted at Seattle University found that project managers who used self-deprecating humor were seen as having motivational qualities such as trust, likeability, and being intellectually stimulating. According to Colette Hoption, one of the study coauthors, “Admitting [mistakes] frankly can help you build solid relationships with your team.”
Dozens of surveys suggest that humor can be at least one of the keys to success. A Robert Half International survey, for instance, found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job. Another study by Bell Leadership Institute found that the two most desirable traits in leaders were a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor. So while you’re working on improving your leadership skills, don’t forget to share your sense of humor and have fun. After all, no less a leader than President Eisenhower understood how important a characteristic it is for a leader. He said, “A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.”