How Successful Leaders Use Humor to Their Advantage

Sometimes laughter is the best medicine at work.

Knowledge@Wharton | Wharton School of Business

Maurice Schweitzer | Wharton School of Business

Brad Bitterly | Wharton School of Business

Should you crack jokes in the office?

According to Wharton research, a sense of humor, when deftly and appropriately used, can enhance workplace status and perception of one’s competence.

That’s one of the findings of the research paper, “Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status,” by Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, doctoral candidate Brad Bitterly and Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard University assistant professor.

They discovered that the successful use of humor signals confidence and competence, which in turn increases the joke teller’s status. But what can backfire is the use of inappropriate jokes or becoming the class clown.

“Although signaling confidence typically increases status, telling inappropriate jokes signals low competence and the combined effect of high confidence and low competence harms status,” the paper said.

Knowledge@Wharton recently sat down with Schweitzer and Bitterly to talk about their findings. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[Also on Longitudes: Real Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Fly into Trouble]

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell me about your research.

Brad Bitterly: Our research is on the relationship between humor and status. Humor pervades our daily interactions, yet it’s been largely ignored by the prior organizational research.

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Humor can signal competence, confidence and increase our status

In this work, we look at how it can really significantly shape and influence the way we perceive others.

When we look around, we see some examples of humor going really well, and it causes us to perceive the joke teller as more confident, competent and higher in status.

For example, the night before Dick Costolo joined Twitter as the chief operating officer, he sent out a tweet that said, “First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Step one, undermine CEO, consolidate power.”

A year after he sent out that tweet, he ended up becoming CEO of Twitter.

So we can see examples of where someone uses humor and they rise to the top of the hierarchy, but we also see cases where people attempt to use, say a really inappropriate joke, and just plummet to the bottom.

And the focus of our work is trying to understand what it is about humor that can cause someone to either rise or fall in status.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are your paper’s key takeaways?

Maurice Schweitzer: Humor is risky. Humor can signal competence, confidence and increase our status.

But sometimes humor can fail because it’s inappropriate, because it’s just not very funny or because we overdo it.

In those cases, we signal low competence and that harms our status. And in some cases, we’ve seen people get fired because of it.

What we find is that whether or not the humor goes well, the use of humor, the attempted use, always signals confidence.

I’m a confident person, I’m telling a joke. But the competence, how competent I am, really matters.

And that’s what swings the use of humor from being effective or ineffective.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does someone get that characteristic of being humorous? Should they go out and take classes? What should they do?

Bitterly: Since it is a really important skill set in our daily lives and a really important managerial skill, I think it could help for people to try to take classes. They could do improv classes that could get them more familiar, more comfortable with delivering a joke.

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Humor not only influences perceptions of one another, but even influences behavior.

I think part of the difficulty to begin with is just trying to get that confidence — that way you feel comfortable delivering it, even an appropriate joke.

Schweitzer: It’s also something we can look for in selection. So when you screen people, we might look for somebody that is at least comfortable with humor.

Again, we don’t want the class clown, but for somebody who’s facile with it, it can really be a strategic advantage.

Knowledge@Wharton: What conclusions, if any, surprised you?

Bitterly: One of the conclusions that I found particularly surprising was in our second study we found that someone who effectively used humor, they were not only perceived to be more confident, competent and higher in status, they were even more likely to be elected as a group leader for a subsequent task.

So here we see humor not only influencing perceptions of one another, but even influencing behavior.

Schweitzer: I’d say another important finding in our work is that really disentangling confidence from status.

In a lot of prior work, people had found that people who are more confident, who project confidence, are perceived to have higher status. And here we show that with the inappropriate use of humor, people can project confidence but still come off so badly they actually lose status.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some practical implications of your research?

Bitterly: Some practical implications, first of all, are that humor can be a really effective tool for increasing status and that people should be aware of this.

Compared to other methods of increasing status, say using goods to signal status, a joke is free whereas a Louis Vuitton bag is extremely expensive. If people realize the power of it, it can be really effective.

But the other thing to keep in mind is, as we said, it’s really risky and people should be aware of that.

And in novel situations with unfamiliar others, you might not have a good read on how your joke is going to be received. And we even see professionals getting in trouble at times.

Last month, we saw [comedian] Ellen DeGeneres send out a picture where she Photoshopped herself on Usain Bolt’s back.

And even though she meant it as a joke and this is someone who has really built her career on being able to effectively use appropriate humor, there was some backlash for the picture.

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So we’re beginning to think about how power and humor really interact.

Schweitzer: We should be careful. And our work identifies the use of humor as something really important — that is, humor influences the hierarchies within our groups at work and at home.

And here, rather than being some ancillary or superfluous behavior, we’re arguing that humor should be taken seriously in so far as it can really help us navigate our social interactions and profoundly influence our perception of where we fit in, in the hierarchy.

Knowledge@Wharton: What sets your research apart from other work in this area?

Bitterly: We’re the first to really experimentally manipulate humor to study how it influences status.

So we ran a series of experiments where we presented participants with a situation where they were faced with an individual that either gave a serious comment or a joke. And we were able to establish causality between humor and confidence, competence and status.

The other area where we set ourselves apart is that we demonstrate that although confidence really does help us in our lives — it’s really good to be confident — saying an inappropriate joke is such a strong signal of lower intelligence and lower skill, it overpowers any of the benefits of confidence and causes a person to lose status.

Knowledge@Wharton: What will you do next as a follow up to this research?

Schweitzer: We have an active program looking at humor in some other contexts like in negotiations.

We’re also interested in how powerful we feel influences our inclination to use humor.

So for example, people who are powerful may be less inhibited in using humor. People who are low in power may feel uncertain about their use of humor.

And it could be that it could create a cycle where if powerful people are more likely to use humor and they get better at it and use it more effectively, it might maintain a power hierarchy in a way that other things might be harder to break.

So we’re beginning to think about how power and humor really interact. goldbrown2

This post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum and was republished with permission. 

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Knowledge@Wharton is the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania's online business analysis journal.

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Maurice Schweitzer is the Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Brad Bitterly is a doctoral candidate at the Wharton School of Business.

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