Humor Can Make You (and Your Employees) More Influential — If You Do It Right

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After his successful bid to buy Twitter, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, went to the platform to joke about his upcoming conquest. “Then I buy Coca-Cola to put the cocaine back on,” joked Musk, a reference to the soft drink company’s original recipe. The joke not only drew considerable attention to Musk, but has since inspired others to use social media and propose other companies that he could buy and “improve.”

Watching famous CEOs like Musk take advantage of his humor effectively can be fun. You may also be tempted to try humor. After all, using humor in your leadership style seems to be advantageous.

When done effectively, humor can be a powerful tool that can greatly enhance your respect, prominence, and prestige, that is, your status as a leader. It can also improve the status of your followers and motivate them to use their new influence to advocate for improvements in the organization. But to reap the benefits of humor, you need to be aware of the costs. Here are some things to keep in mind when considering whether or not to use humor at work:

Perfect your skills

Humor can serve as a good sign of one’s intelligence and ability. Studies show that using humor when interacting with others can make you seem more competent, allow you to achieve higher status, and be seen as a leader. But there is a problem: your attempt at humor must be humorous.

Think of a time when you saw someone make a failed attempt at humor. Not only did it cause second-hand embarrassment, but you probably saw them visibly back away, becoming less balanced and self-assured. How did it affect your impressions of them? Did you perceive them as a little less competent for not delivering the desired message effectively?

While successful attempts at humor can improve your competition and perceived status, unsuccessful attempts can reduce it. This does not mean, of course, that humor should not be tested when given the opportunity. Rather, the point is that, like other leadership skills, successful attempts at humor are an art that needs to be perfected. Understanding the potential risks of using humor at work can help you make a more informed decision about whether to find out about this much-anticipated joke.

Related: How to have fun in the workplace

Keep it clean

One of the reasons humor can reduce your mood is because the joke doesn’t go overboard and is therefore not registered as an attempt at humor. Another reason, however, could be that the joke pushes the boundaries of adequacy and offends those who seek humor. Regular suspects include sarcasm, teasing, and insensitivity, largely considered aggressive humor styles. While there may be a time and place for these bolder forms of comedy, the workplace is not one of them.

Research suggests that the use of aggressive humor at work may encourage subordinates to break the rules, thereby undermining your influence. And just like jokes that just fall apart, inappropriate jokes can affect your impressions of competition, further undermining your status and influence. The lesson is that when it comes to the work environment, taking advantage of the benefits of humor requires knowing when your joke exceeds the limits enough to be fun without crossing the line.

Related: Why telling jokes at work makes you feel safer

Your use of humor also affects the status of others

Therefore, using humor can increase or decrease your status and influence at work. But making jokes with your subordinates can also affect you theirs state and influence?

Interested in this question, my colleagues and I have recently done a series of studies to shed some light on the subject. We found that when leaders used a positive, playful sense of humor, their subordinates became more active, confident, and involved in the work, which eventually improved their job status. In turn, they took advantage of their greater influence to advocate for changes that could improve the unity of work.

But not all styles of humor led to such positive results. Again, aggressive forms of humor seem to act as status suppressors. Specifically, we found, moreover, that when the humor of leaders involved sarcasm, mockery, or ridicule, their subordinates tended to step back from the work environment, becoming less confident and more inhibited; trends that eventually suppressed their employment status. In turn, they became less involved in their work and less likely to express their suggestions.

Therefore, remember that your mood not only affects your own influence as a leader, but also affects those individuals you are responsible for leading. With that in mind, maybe leave the cocaine jokes to Elon Musk.

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