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Having a good sense of humour can be beneficial in many scenarios, whether in your personal life or at work. However, when defining a strong leader, most people would not consider humour as being a crucial attribute.

An article by Brad Bitterly and Alison Wood Brooks aimed to dig deeper into this topic, understanding that humour, when used responsibly, can be a powerful tool. In their paper, which was published in the Harvard Business review in 2020, they discussed different ways of using specific types of humour to become a better leader.

The authors explain, “humor can influence and reinforce status hierarchies in groups, build interpersonal trust and high-quality work relationships, and fundamentally shape the way people perceive one another’s confidence, competence, warmth, and clarity of communication.”

However, attempting humour can be risky business, and a poorly timed or misunderstood joke can lead to negative consequences.

In any case, well-placed punchlines have proven to be a great way of getting a promotion at work. Furthermore, other studies have shown that those who make funny and appropriate jokes are more likely to be nominated for leadership positions by their peers. Another study also found that employees were more likely to go that extra mile when leaders applied humour.

So, what is humour, and why does it make us laugh? In short, things can be funny when they make us uncomfortable, but in a way that is acceptable and not overly threatening.

Regardless of a joke’s effectiveness, the joke teller is often seen by others as being more confident, purely based on their willingness to attempt humour. It therefore comes as no surprise that perceived confidence through humour can be extremely useful in the workplace.

Humour is undoubtedly broad and diverse, and being able to navigate its intricacies is vital. Take inside jokes as an example; the authors say that these jokes work best when everyone is in the loop. However, group cohesion can be hindered when outsiders who lack context about a joke are involved, as they might feel alienated.

Regarding sarcasm, although it is often labelled as the lowest form of whit, it still has its place. One study found that participants in a sarcastic group were more likely to solve a creativity task compared to the sincere participants. That said, sarcasm in the workplace runs the risk of lessening the importance of negative feedback if an employee misunderstands its usage.

Self-deprecation can be used to joke about a nonessential skill, but context is crucial in this instance. “Among lower status people it can backfire if the trait or skill in question is an essential area of Competence”, the authors explain.

Difficult questions are common in the workplace, so using humour to dodge them can be effective. This is because injecting a well-placed joke can turn one’s attention away from certain information. It also shows intelligence and confidence. However, when using humour to deliver negative feedback, studies have shown that humorous complaints were taken less seriously, which can reduce the likelihood of someone rectifying a problem.

On the subject of negativity, using humour as a coping mechanism when a group is facing difficulty in the workplace can be a beneficial. However, “It’s also important to be careful about offending others with jokes when a situation is ongoing or recent (‘too soon’),” the authors add.

Needless to say, humour is an extremely important part of being human, and using it in the workplace can provide numerous benefits when applied correctly.