Research Brief: For Great Leaders, the Joke’s on Them

Why self-deprecating humour is part of the magic of transformational leaders in their one-on-one dealings with followers
Research Brief: For Great Leaders, the Joke’s on Them

WHAT DID THE STUDY LOOK AT?

In the hands of a leader, humour can be both a weapon to demean underlings and a tool to build relationships. Critical to consider is the nature of the joke; self-deprecating humour targeting the joke-teller has different outcomes than aggressive humour targeting others. Leaders who laugh at themselves, for example, appear closer to the level of their followers. Digging deeper, the researchers applied this insight to the theory of “transformational leadership,” which describes leaders as keenly interested in the advancement and needs of followers. The theory rests on four pillars: inspirational motivation (has a clear vision that’s well articulated), idealized influence (serves as a role model), intellectual stimulation (encourages followers to explore new ways of doing things), and individualized consideration (takes into account each person’s skills). This study looked at how transformational leaders use humour as an expression of how they value themselves relative to others.

HOW WAS THE STUDY DESIGNED?

Researchers randomly assigned 155 participants (university undergraduates) to read one of four fictional vignettes. In all four vignettes, a project manager addressed three direct reports and a new recruit (Pat) at an inaugural project meeting. The last line of each vignette corresponded to a one of four humour styles: self-deprecating (“I am so glad Pat took this job despite knowing all about me!”), in-group-deprecating (“I am so glad Pat took this job despite knowing all about us!”), aggressive (“I am so glad Pat took this job despite knowing all about you!”), and no humour. The participants then rated the project manager according to likeability, trustworthiness, and how funny they regarded the vignette. On a separate scale, they scored the project manager’s transformational leadership characteristics. This allowed the researchers to measure how the styles of humour affected each one of the four pillars of transformational leadership.

WHAT DID THE STUDY FIND?

  • Humor style predicted the project manager’s transformational leadership ratings.
  • In particular the self-deprecating project manager obtained higher ratings on individualized consideration in comparison to the project manager who used aggressive humour.
  • The aggressively humorous manager was rated as significantly less individually considerate than the project manager who used no humor at all,
  • The use of self-deprecating humour had a strong effect on people’s rankings of a leader’s individualized consideration, a category which is usually reserved for leaders who pay special attention to mentoring and coaching followers. In this case, however, the result likely has more to do with the leader putting herself last and not emphasizing her superiority.
  • Followers’ views of their leader may be more dependent on what the leader’s preferred type of humour reveals about his values than how funny he actually is.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW? 

Humour can be difficult to pull off effectively — in the workplace, there is the risk of being perceived as rude or subversive. Self-deprecating humour, too, walks a fine line: to be effective, it has to convey an honest and witty view of oneself and not be self-disparaging. For leaders wanting to communicate egalitarian values, self-deprecating humour can help build a trusting relationship with followers. 

At the same time, the researchers recommend using this type of humour prudently. Telling self-deprecating jokes repeatedly can undermine confidence or come off as insincere, making it a tool to be used sparingly.

Title: "It's not you, it's me": transformational leadership and self-deprecating humour

Authors: Colette Hoption (Seattle University), Julian Barling (Queen's School of Business), Nick Turner (University of Manitoba)

Published: Leadership & Organization (vol. 34 no. 1, 2013) 

Kenza Moller

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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