Want to be a great leader? Learn to laugh at yourself.

Can using self-deprecating humor make you a more likable and successful leader? According to a study conducted by researchers at Seattle University, yes, it can. 

In a 2013 study, 155 business students were placed into one of four humor conditions:

  • aggressive humor (making fun of someone else)
  • in-group deprecating humor (making fun of a common trait between the leader and employees)
  • self-deprecating humor (making fun of yourself)
  • a controlled situation with no humor.

For each scenario, participants had to read a speech in which the leader of the company introduces a new employee named Pat. The conditions of the experiment were manipulated through one single statement at the end of the speech with the leader saying one of the following:

  • “I am so glad that Pat took this job despite knowing all about you!” (aggressive humor)
  • “I am so glad that Pat took this job despite knowing all about us!” (in-group deprecating)
  • “I am so glad that Pat took this job despite knowing all about me!” (self-deprecating)
  • “I am so glad that Pat took this job!” (controlled situation with no humor)

SONY DSCThe results showed overwhelmingly that the students favored the leader who made the self-deprecating statement. The leader in this scenario was rated the highest for “trustworthiness” and “leadership ability.” On the other hand, the leader with the least favorability was the leader who used aggressive humor, even scoring lower than the leader who used no humor at all.

So what is it about self-deprecating humor that can make you a great leader? Well, there are a few possible reasons for this. Self-deprecating humor can level the playing field between boss and employee. It can create a more comfortable environment and let the employee know that you, as the leader, don’t feel as if you’re more important because of your status in the company. It’s a great way to humanize and personalize yourself. This type of humor can also help your employees listen better. When you make people laugh, they are more likely to care about what you have to say. Using humor can draw in your employees and have them paying extra attention.

Self-deprecating humor can have its advantages, but you have to be careful not to over-do it. Using this type of humor is fun if it’s used every now and then, but using it too much can make one look needy or weak, like they are fishing for compliments or seeking validation. Much like alcohol and tanning lotion, self-deprecating humor should be used in moderation.

Mindy Lee
Advisor/Marketing Coordinator