LEADERSHIP / DEC. 16, 2014
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Is Poking Fun At Yourself The Key To Great Leadership?

I’m sure you can all agree with me that a fun workplace is generally a happier and more productive one.  A jovial atmosphere helps you to bond with your colleagues and generally approach your work in a better frame of mind.  Cracking jokes at work is not without its risks however.  Not only can jokes provoke tumbleweed bouncing through the office, they can also cause offence or potentially get you into trouble with HR.

Being able to strike the right balance, however, and use humour in the right way can do wonders for your career.  A recent study highlights how being able to laugh at ourselves can prompt colleagues to regard us as more trustworthy, caring and likable.

The research proposed that self-deprecating humour would boost our opinion of a colleague, even if we didn’t really find the jokes they made particularly funny.  The jokes would reflect the person’s values and supposed concern for others.

“We chose humor as a mechanism through which leaders express their concern for others (vs. the self) because of the potential for humor to be both a weapon to harm others and a tool to build relationships,” the researchers explain.

It’s all about caring for others

The researchers suggest that when we focus on the happiness and well-being of others, we’re more likely to then earn the trust and goodwill of our colleagues.  Being able to laugh at ourselves is one way that we can do this, especially if we’re in a leadership position that may create a natural difference between ourselves and our team.  Humour can help to break down those barriers.

The study saw participants placed into one of four groups, each with a very specific kind of humour:

  • self deprecating humour (i.e., making jokes about yourself)
  • aggressive humour (i.e., making jokes about someone else)
  • in group deprecating humour (i.e., where you make fun of something the group has in common)
  • no humour (the control group)

Each group had to read a statement from a leader in their company who was introducing a new colleague, who was called Pat.  Each statement was identical except for the final statement, which was tailored depending upon the specific group each participant was in.  So for instance, those in group one might read something like "I’m glad Pat joined us, despite knowing everything about me".  The second group however might have read something like "I’m glad Pat joined us, despite knowing everything about you all".  And so on.

The participants were then asked to rate the leader based upon the statement.  Suffice to say, there wasn’t much difference in their perceived sense of humour across any of the groups, but when the leader made self-deprecating jokes, they were rated much higher for things such as their leadership ability and trustworthiness.  What’s more, those in the second group scored their leader worst of all.

“Thus, it is important to reiterate that the perception of transformational leadership may be less dependent on how funny leaders are perceived to be, and more dependent on what the type of humor indicates about leaders’ values,” the researchers suggest.

Before you start taking the mickey out of yourself on a regular basis, the researchers urge a note of caution.  They suggest that excessive jokes aimed at oneself can come across as a bit fake and insincere.  They’d also like to conduct some additional studies to see just how replicable the findings are.  For instance, do the same results emerge if the ’audience’ is older or younger?  Do men and women respond the same way?  There are lots of potential variables to take into account.

If you want to be liked and trusted at work, however, being able to joke about yourself may be a good way to start.


Image: iStock

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