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How to be a Seriously Effective Leader in a Crisis

If you are not laughing, you're likely not paying attention. Good humor is a part of a good life. But many leaders fail to take it seriously. After a couple of decades of working in talent management, I get it. There are more than a few good reasons why leaders should think twice before using humor at work. But new research suggests that humor during times of crisis significantly improves employee engagement and organizational performance. It seems like an understatement to describe the current business environment as stressful. Executive leadership teams are talking about navigating burnout and a growing concern for the emotional well-being of employees. Effective leadership requires more than perks and pay. Here's a four-ingredient recipe to get humor right and avoid the dark side.

What is humor?

Whether humor is a stimulus, a cognitive process, an emotional or behavioral response, or all of these remains somewhat of a debate among researchers. However, humor is generally defined as intentionally amusing verbal and nonverbal communication that is perceived as amusing.

A day without laughter is a day wasted. Charlie Chaplin

Humor can be considered a social skill, emotion, cognitive ability, interpersonal communication behavior, behavioral response, habit, perspective about life, or coping strategy. Having a sense of humor is considered a personality trait.

Research identifies five fundamental styles of humor categorized as either positive or negative to yourself and others:

  1. Affiliative humor (positive, others): non-threatening joking around used to enhance social interactions

  2. Self-enhancing humor (positive, self): humor to enhance the leader's self-image

  3. Aggressive humor (negative, others): humor used to manipulate others by threats or ridicule

  4. Mild-aggressive humor (negative, others): is satire and teasing with a humorous tone

  5. Self-defeating humor (negative, self): humor is used to lower the leader's social status so as to be more approachable

Much of the positive influence of humor is due to a biochemical response. Laughing reduces cortisol levels which have a calming effect, increases endorphins creating a runner's high, and increases oxytocin which creates warm feelings toward others.

The benefits of humor

If you are a little skeptical about the benefits of humor, you are not alone. However, beyond the obvious benefit of reducing tension, humor translates to business results. Numerous studies link positive humor with many individual, team, and organizational benefits, including:

  • Job satisfaction

  • Engagement

  • Resiliency

  • Improved team cohesion

  • Communication

  • Creativity

  • Organizational culture

  • Employee performance

  • Employee wellbeing

  • Decreased stress and burnout

Being approachable is important for any leader because silence is costly. Also, the higher your role in a company, the greater the power distance is created between you and followers in the organization. This distance makes it harder to get needed feedback. Evidence suggests that humor reduces power distance by creating similarities between people. Also, leaders with a sense of humor are more motivating and admired than those that don't.

In this TEDx, Karyn Buxman expands on the science of humor.

The Dark Side of humor

"But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression…the dark side of the Force are they, easily they flow." - Yoda.

Not all humor styles are beneficial, and humor does not have to be intentionally negative to offend. As to be expected, evidence suggests that aggressive and self-defeating humor comes with a high cost, including:

  • Trauma-related symptoms

  • Depressive symptoms

  • Neuroticism

  • Social anxiety

A leadership recipe for using humor

The recipe for getting humor right at work includes four ingredients.

Humor Ingredient #1: Know Your Audience

Creating a sense of shared social identity is a prerequisite for good communication and humor. A social identity study found that perceived similarity facilitated communication quality, and perceived differences lowered communication quality. When it comes to humor and social identity, perceptions matter. It is best to understand the audience and company culture before trying to be understood.

Humor Ingredient #2: Keep it Positive

Ask yourself, how will this make others feel? Avoid an aggressive style of humor that tears others down, especially those in lower positions of authority. Never laugh at people, rather, laugh with them.

Humor Ingredient #3: Keep it Close

Check your distance to the topic. If you are like me, you learned the importance of keeping it close on the playground. I can make fun of my family, but not someone else's family.

Humor Ingredient #4: Know Yourself

Studies suggest that our traits influence our natural humor style. The better you understand yourself, the better you will understand how to leverage your strengths and be aware of potential blind spots. Here is a link to a short self-assessment that helps identify your preferred humor style and delivery:

Like with learning any skill, it is best to start small, be patient, reflect along the way, and ask for feedback from those you know will be honest. Don't learn in a vacuum, rely solely on the input from one person, or assume that it is going to feel natural quickly.

Conclusion: Do you have to be a serious leader to be seriously effective in a crisis?

Addressing the concerns in the business about exhaustion, burnout, and emotional well-being goes beyond perks and pay. And failing to navigate a crisis well threatens business viability.

Emerging research demonstrates that effective leaders use humor during times of crisis to achieve business results. However, not all humor styles are beneficial, and humor does not have to be intentionally negative to offend. A recipe for getting humor right at work includes these four ingredients:

  1. Know your audience

  2. Keep it positive

  3. Keep it close

  4. Know yourself

What's your real challenge with using humor in the workplace?


Aaker, J., & Bagdonas, N. (2021). How to be funny at work. Harvard Business Review.

Decker, W. (1987). Managerial humor and subordinate satisfaction. Social Behavior and Personality. Vol. 15 (2). 225-232.

Guidice, Mesmer-Magnus, J., Barnes, D. C., & Scribner, L. L. (2022). Service amid crisis: the role of supervisor humor and discretionary organizational support. The Journal of Services Marketing.

Mesmer‐Magnus, J., Glew, D. J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2012). A meta‐analysis of positive humor in the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology.

Romero, E. J., & Cruthirds, K. W. (2006). The use of humor in the workplace. Academy of management perspectives, 20(2), 58-69.

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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