Department of Management


Date of this Version

Summer 2009


Published in JOURNAL OF MANAGERIAL ISSUES Vol. XXI Number 2 Summer 2009: 171-194. Published by Department of Economics, Finance and Banking, Pittsburg State University.


Although it is widely suspected that a leader’s use of humor can have an enhancing effect on follower performance, relatively little empirical evidence has been gathered that clearly substantiates this belief (Duncan, Smeltzer, and Leap, 1990). Generally, scholarship devoted to the topic of humor in the workplace has been suggestive of how humor might impact group climate or organizational culture (Collinson, 1988; Holmes and Marra, 2002; Linstead, 1985; Lundberg, 1969; Robinson and Smith-Lovin, 2001) or build unit cohesion (Lennox-Terrion and Ashforth, 2002). In his early article, Malone (1980) argued that humor may contribute to enhancing both employee satisfaction and performance. Duncan (1982) linked humor to stimulating better communications as well as group cohesiveness, and linked these variables to better individual performance. In a later review of the literature on humor, Duncan et al. (1990) pointed to social psychological evidence of performance effects due to humor, as well as possible gender differences in response to humor. Additionally, Csikszentmihalyi (1996) provided support for the proposition that humor may stimulate creative thinking and innovation, while Ziv (1976) demonstrated that exposure to humor can enhance creativity in a laboratory setting. More recently, Cooper (2005) suggested that humor can be a type of ingratiatory behavior that can induce a favorable mood. In her conceptual framework for understanding humor as a form of ingratiation, Cooper linked humor to employee effectiveness. Christopher and Yan (2005), in a discussion of organizational culture, suggested that humor can also help to build interpersonal work relationships and, thereby, impact larger organizational outcomes. From a broader perspective, evidence reported by Amabile, Barsade, Mueller, and Staw (2005), George (1990, 1995), and Isen, Daubman, and Nowicki (1987) indicates that positive affect and mood are related to creativity and performance in a direct, linear fashion.

In one of the few empirical studies of the role of humor in a particular organizational setting, Avolio, Howell, and Sosik (1999) assessed the attitudes and behaviors of 115 managerial leaders and their 322 subordinates in a large financial institution. Specifically, these researchers asked followers to describe their manager’s leadership behavior (on dimensions of transformational, contingent reward, and laissez-faire leadership) and use of tension-reducing humor. Analyses of the dependent measures of subordinate and work-unit performance revealed that humor had both a positive main-effect and a moderator-effect when considered in conjunction with subordinate descriptions of leader behavior. Specifically, they found that transformational leadership was more positively related to unit performance for leaders who made high use of humor (relative to low use), and that contingent reward leadership and laissez-faire leadership (contrary to their predictions) were more negatively related to performance (at both unit and individual levels) for leaders who made high use of humor (relative to low use).

It should perhaps be noted at this point that tension-reducing humor is also the focus of the present study. However, tension-reducing humor is only one of three major theoretical perspectives for understanding the role of humor: superiority, incongruity, and relief (or tension-reducing). Superiority theories of humor contend that humor originates in feelings of perceived superiority over another (Foot, 1986). Research on this form of humor has dealt with aggressive and disparaging aspects of humor. Incongruity theories focus on humor arising from the unanticipated discovery of an inconsistency (Berger, 1976). Relief theories, however, focus on laughter as providing a discharge for pent-up energy or tension (Berlyne, 1972; Giles et al., 1976).