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MANAGING HUMOR

IN ORGANIZATIONS
Handling the Double-Edged Sword
Wout Gijsbers
Managing Humor

T ABLE OF C ONTENTS

Introduction............................................................................................................................................. 3

Chapter 1: Theories of Humor ................................................................................................................. 5

Chapter 2: Positive Functions: the Sharp Edge ....................................................................................... 9
Positive Physical Functions .............................................................................................................. 9
Positive Psychological Functions ................................................................................................... 10
Positive Organizational Functions ................................................................................................. 12
Humor Styles ................................................................................................................................. 20

Chapter 3: Negative Functions: the Blunt Edge .................................................................................... 22
Negative Physical Functions .......................................................................................................... 23
Negative Psychological Functions ................................................................................................. 23
Negative Organizational Functions ............................................................................................... 24

Chapter 4: Joking Relationships: Putting Humor into Context .............................................................. 29

Chapter 5: Managing Humor: the ALBAC method ................................................................................ 33

Conclusion ............................................................................................................................................. 37

Bibliography........................................................................................................................................... 38

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Introduction Managing Humor

I NTRODUCTION

“If you want to thrive and remain competitive in a world that is changing radically and
relentlessly, you need the fluidity and flexibility of humor”
- C.W. Metcalf, humor consultant -

“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting
things done.”
- Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th president of the US (1890-1969) -

“How can humor help me thrive in a radically and relentlessly changing world?” “What is so special
about the relation between humor and leadership?” “How can humor help me get things done?”
Questions like these are likely to surface after reading the two quotes stated above. The current
paper intends to provide a number of possible answers to these answers, as well as answers to many
more questions of a comparable nature. In particular, this paper aims to show and discuss the ways
in which, as well as the extent to which managers can use humor as a tool to help them reach their
objectives. The thesis question at the heart of the current paper is therefore: “How and to what
extent can humor be used as a managerial tool?”. The information collection method employed for
this paper essentially consisted of a literature review of all works that were considered to be best
able to answer the main thesis question. More specifically, the articles and books that were reviewed
were chosen based on relevance to the main topic (i.e., content-wise), source (i.e., suitability and
prominence of journals and publishers), author, number of articles that referred to the article or
book under investigation, and sheer availability of the book or article (i.e., within close proximity in
time, scope, and finances). Despite the fact that the list of reviewed material is by no means final or
complete, it does provide an adequate basis for the current paper. Before moving on to the first
chapter, it is important to clarify the structure of this paper as well as to provide a definition of
humor. Starting with the letter, a definition is required that encompasses both verbal and non-verbal
(e.g., pictorial) humor, and that is most applicable to humor from a managerial perspective. In
addition, it must be able to take into account the fact that the current paper mostly focuses on the
prolonged use of humor in a managerial context, as a significant portion of the functions of humor
only work by using humor on a regular basis (as opposed to using it only on one occasion). A
definition that is able to fulfill these criteria, and that also manages to incorporate the two-sided
nature of humor, is Romero and Cruthirds’s definition of organizational humor as consisting of
“amusing communications that produce positive emotions and cognitions in the individual, group, or

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Introduction Managing Humor

organization” (Romero & Cruthirds, 2006, pp.59). The two-sided nature of humor is also represented
in the commonly-used metaphor around which the current paper is structured, that of humor as a
double-edged sword. To somewhat clarify this metaphor and materialize its elements, while at the
same showing the overall structure of the current paper, a graphical representation of it is shown in
Figure 1. As can be seen in this figure, this paper has been split into four chapters. The first chapter

F IGURE 1 THE D OUBLE -E DGED S WORD

deals with the three main theories of humor: superiority theory, relief theory and incongruity theory.
The second chapter deals with the sharp edge of the double-edged sword; the positive functions of
humor. Admittedly, referring to something positive as ‘the sharp edge of a sword’ may seem quite
dubious at first. However, if one considers the goal of the sword to be the attainment of an
appreciative response to humor, using the sharp edge of the sword would of course be preferable
over using the blunt edge. The third chapter will discuss this blunt edge; the negative functions of
humor, referring to the functions humor can have, if, for a variety of reasons, it fails to be
appreciated by its audience. After discussing the two edges of the sword, chapter four will address
the items making up the hilt of the sword, the context of humor. Context is represented as the hilt of
the sword because the direction in which the sword cuts (i.e., with its sharp or its blunt edge) is
largely dependent on the initiator’s ability to hold the sword, referring to his or her ability to ‘read’
the context of humor. Therefore, even though it is obviously the initiator of humor who is holding the
sword, the way in which he or she should hold it to use it successfully depends on the context of
humor. In particular, chapter four will focus on the role of joking relationships in the production and
evaluation of humor. The final chapter will outline the ways in which humor should be managed, in
order to be able to make effective, efficient and successful use of the double-edged sword; purely
using the sharp edge of the double-edged sword. Following the last chapter, a short summary will
provide the closing section of the current paper.

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Theories of Humor Managing Humor

C HAPTER 1
T HEORIES OF H UMOR

“Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is
suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.”
- Aristotle, Philosopher, 384-322 BC -

“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and
sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor”
- Charles Dickens, Novelist, 1812-1870 –

As the two quotes above indicate, humor is everything but a recently-introduced topic of
discussion and study. From Ancient Greece to Victorian England and from philosophy to sociology;
humor seems to have been given ample attention in a wide variety of fields. Conglomerating the
most important viewpoints on and insights into humor, it can be stated that conceptualizations of
what humor essentially is can be narrowed down to three theories: superiority theory, relief theory
and incongruity theory. The current chapter will provide you with a short introduction into each of
these three theories.
Superiority theory (sometimes referred to as disparagement or dispositional theory and, to a lesser
extent, as cognitive appraisal theory) is based on the idea that humor is a tool of distinction. It is
always directed from a subject to an object with the intention of expressing superiority of the former
over the latter, of elevating the subject’s position above that of the object (e.g., Cooper, 2008;
Mcllheran, 2006; Kangasharju, 2009; McIlheran, 2006). As John Morreal states: in superiority theory
“all laughter is at somebody” (Morreal, 1997, pp.24). According to some, this theory dates back to
medieval philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who stated that “the passion of laughter and joy is nothing
else but a sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by
comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” (Hobbes, in Duncan, Smeltzer &
Leap, 1990, pp.259). In other words, humor offers individuals a way of self-glorification by
depreciating others. In this way, it allows them to enhance their self-esteem and protect their
identities (Greatbatch & Clark, 2003). For Hobbes, those who laugh the most are the people with the
least amount of self-esteem, and therefore with the greatest urge to elevate their own identities by
constantly focusing on the imperfections of others. In line with this argument, humor is seen as
something to be ashamed of; something to avoid using at all times. According to Pihulyk, the fact
that this view on humor has been prevalent for such a long time is reflected in the suspicion people

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Theories of Humor Managing Humor

often have about humor; they are not sure whether humor is or is not used as a tool of distinction at
a given moment (Pihulyk, 2002). This claim does not rest on very solid grounds, as several other
authors have indicated. For example, Morreall states that if this theory were the only theory that
accurately describes and encompasses all kinds of humor, the laughter of a baby in a game of peek-a-
boo would seem to indicate a striving for superiority over the initiator of the humor by the baby
(Morreal, 1997). Of course, it would be naïve and simplistic to state that humor is never used as a
tool of distinction and superiority, judging by the vast amount of ethnic and sexual humor, put-down
humor and mocking, most of which consisting of a weak, inferior focus (i.e., victim) as seen through
the eyes of the initiator (Romero & Pescosolido, 2008). Nevertheless, it has to be noted that these
kinds of humor and the roles they play from a superiority theory perspective can only be considered
if they are within what Terrion & Ashforth (2002) refer to as a play frame, in which all participants
(initiator, target and focus) are aware that the remark made by the subject should be considered a
joke; that it should not be taken seriously.
The second major humor theory is relief theory, which stems from the works of Sigmund
Freud. For Freud, “the essence of humour is that one spares oneself the affects to which the
situation would naturally give rise and overrides with a jest the possibility of such an emotional
display” (Freud in Cooper, 2008, pp.1096). In other words, humor stems from the pleasure that is
derived by replacing the emotions that a person would naturally feel in a specific situation by a
humorous element, thereby enabling herself to release the energy built up during the situation in the
form of laugher or any form of what can be considered as a positive response to humor.
Consequently, the potential source of stress or pain is removed and the emotion caused by the
source can be expressed in the form of a normal, socially acceptable way such as humor (Greatbatch
& Clark, 2003). In this way, according to Freud, individuals can protect themselves from the harm
that the emotions normally brought forward by certain situations and events would cause them, and
contain their deepest sexual or aggressive impulses by expressing their energies in the form of humor
(Cooper, 2008; Kangasharju, 2009; Lee, 2005). Lyttle (2007) states that the workings of relief theory
can be best seen in the positive responses to humor involving “highly charged topics” (pp.240);
according to Lyttle, we laugh at humor involving sex and violence because it is one of the few socially
acceptable ways we can express emotions regarding those subjects, emotions that would otherwise
need to be repressed (Lyttle, 2007). This statement contradicts with McIlheran’s claim that humor, as
seen from a relief theory perspective, is only used “to relieve tension or grief when someone is
depressed” (McIlheran, 2006, pp.269). If this were true, it would not be illogical to conclude that
every kind of humor involving sex or violence (and to a lesser extent, even ethnicity) stems from a
deep sense of depression. In other words, the majority of men in their puberty, as well as any person
able to appreciate comedy shows such as South Park and Happy Tree Friends would, if this were true,

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Theories of Humor Managing Humor

be suffering from a depression. Nevertheless, it remains hard to fully agree with the baseline of relief
theory, as humor cannot simply be fully explained by describing it as an acceptable relief from
repressed emotions. For example, if a manager tries to reconcile a disagreement between two
rivaling employees by making a humorous statement or by showing a humorous picture that is in no
way related to sex, ethnicity or aggression and all involved parties are able to appreciate the humor,
does this entail that each person involved were able to do so because it allows him or her to relieve
socially unacceptable emotions? Could this truly be the only reason for positive responses to humor?
Could it not be possible that the parties were able to appreciate the humor because it drew attention
to an incongruity within the humor? This leads into the third theory of humor, incongruity theory.
Incongruity theory revolves around perspectives and thought systems. Put simply, in
incongruity theory, humor ‘occurs’ when two or more phenomena that are not particularly
interesting in separation, are brought together, causing the rules and assumptions from one
phenomena to mix with those of the others. In this way, an incongruity between the phenomena
presents itself, leading the
combination of phenomena to be
perceived as absurd, surreal, and
thereby humorous (e.g., Yarwood,
1995; Duncan, 1990). A concept at the
center of incongruity theory is
“bisociation”, coined by Arthur
Koestler as the merging (i.e., ‘bi-
association’) of two or more thought
F IGURE 2 J OSEPH J ASTROW . R ABBIT AND D UCK systems, system herein referring to
any phenomenon that is dependent on a set of specific rules and regulations (Koestler in Yarwood,
1995, pp.82). Cooper describes incongruity (and the humor resulting from it) slightly less abstract by
stating that it can stem from a difference between the expected and the actual (e.g., a chirping dog
or a barking cat), from perceiving a situation with multiple incompatible frames of reference (e.g.
Jastrow’s Rabbit and Duck, shown in Figure 2), or from the multiple ways in which a word or a
combination of words can be understood (e.g., the plethora of jokes in which the normal word for
the male reproductive organ is replaced with anything from “wood” to “sword”, and from “tools” to
“sausage”) (Cooper, 2008). However, incongruity itself can only partially explain why something or
someone is regarded as funny. In addition to the incongruity itself, there needs to be what Duncan
refers to as “a meaningful resolution of the incongruity”. This resolution consists of two steps. The
first step consists of a violation of expectations (i.e., the incongruity itself). During the second step,
the person at the receiving end of the humor must be able to merge the parts of the humorous

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statement that are incongruous in such a way that their combination makes sense but still remains
incongruous (due to a remaining difference between the expected and the actual, a remaining
incongruity between multiple frames of reference or due to a word or a phrase’s multiple meanings).
In relation to this explanation of the process of incongruity humor, Robert (2005) claims that
appreciation of humor is positively correlated with the degree to which an incongruity is in conflict
with a frame of reference’s core characteristics. This statement is quite a precarious one because it is
quite easy to think of incongruity that conflict with a frame of reference’s core characteristics at such
a deep, abstract level that it is impossible for many individuals to enjoy the incongruity as humor. In
short, there is certainly a boundary to which incongruity can be considered enjoyable.
Having discussed each major humor theory separately, a number of conclusions can be
drawn. Firstly, it seems to be the fact that each theory discusses humor from a different perspective.
This conclusion is in agreement with Lyttle (2007), who stated that incongruity theory tries to explain
what makes something humorous, that superiority theory discusses when (i.e., under which
circumstances) we find something funny, and that relief theory tries to explain the reasons for
humor’s very existence. Consequently, it is difficult to claim that any one of the three discussed
theories is able to give a full account of humor on its own. It is more plausible to state that each
theory plays a role within certain aspects of humor, sometimes being more prevalent than others,
sometimes being the only theory recognizably applicable to a certain humorous event. However,
despite the apparent incompleteness of each theory by itself, a combination of the three theories
does provide a very promising basis upon which discuss humor, allowing one to approach humor in
different ways if the situation requires one to do so. As will become clear in the following chapters
this approach is very suitable to the current paper.

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

C HAPTER 2
P OSITIVE F UNCTIONS : THE S HARP E DGE
At first sight, humor seems to be quite a straightforward concept: one person jokes to see
another laugh (or at least smile). However, apart from merely making an individual laugh, there is
much more that humor can do. For this very reason, this chapter will start by discussing the positive
functions of humor in roughly the same manner as adopted by Lee & Kleiner (2005), dividing them up
into four categories: physical, psychological, organizational and social functions. These four
categories allow for a micro-to-macro analysis of the positive functions, beginning with a focus on
individual employees themselves and moving towards a focus on the organization as a whole. Given
the aim of this paper, the decision was made to merge the third and fourth category into one:
organizational functions. Before starting with the discussion of the first of the three categories,
physical functions, it has to be noted that the distinctions and boundaries between each of the
categories, as well as each of the functions, are more often than not blurry and fluid, causing humor
to appear as a seamless web of interrelated concepts. Nevertheless, aided by the tri-partite
categorization and a number of models drawn from the researched literature, an attempt will be
made at unraveling this web.

P O S I TI VE P H Y S I C AL F UN C TI O N S
Within the first category of functions, the physical functions, a number of traits and
processes have been associated with humor. The large majority of these functions are indirectly
related to humor through laughter, as laughter is the most clear and certainly most easily
measurable physical manifestation of humor. Laughter reduces muscle tension (Fry, 1992 in
McIlheran, 2006), stimulates blood flow, lowers blood pressure (Martin et al., 1993 in Collinson,
2002) and heart rate, boosts the auto-immune system (Berk et al., 1988 in Collinson, 2002) and
reduces the levels of stress hormones (Johnston, n.d.; Sokal, 2002 in Lee & Kleiner, 2005; Morreall,
1997). In addition, it has been shown that laughter increases the level of some of the same hormones
as are activated during physical exercise (Rainham, 2003 in Lee, 2005). The role of humor and
laughter on stress alleviation, a relation which has been brought to attention by several researchers
(e.g., Avolio et al., 1999; Cogan et al., 1987 in Collinson, 2002; Cruthirds, 2006; Greatbatch & Clark,
2003; Lee & Kleiner, 2005; Morreall, 1997), is especially relevant for the current discussion, as stress
is undeniably highly prevalent in the modern-day work environment. As will be discussed in the
sections to come, humor provides employees with a tool to better deal with stress. In other words, it
can functions as a natural stress reliever or alleviator.

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

Muscle tension
Blood flow
Blood pressure
Auto-Immune System
Heart rate
Hormones activated during physical exercise
Stress

+ -
Laughter

Humor

F IGURE 3 P OSITIVE P HYSICAL F UNCTIONS

P O S I TI VE P S Y CH O L O G I C AL F UN CTI O N S
The functions within the second category of humor’s positive functions, its psychological
functions, are often not as easily empirically testable as the functions making up the former category.
Because of this, research within the former category primarily relies on ethnographic and linguistic
data derived from participant observation and semi-structured interviews. Some conclusions from
research within this category are that an increase in humor is correlated with a decrease in feelings
of anger, an increase in creativity (Bolman & Deal, 1992), sense of joy and positive mood (Eisenhardt
et al., 1997), motivation (e.g., Crawford, 1994 in Avolio et al., 1999), individual productivity (Duncan
& Feisal, 1989; Johnson, n.d.), and ability to deal with unexpected (and negative) events (McLaughlin,
2001 in Lee, 2005). In addition, it has also been claimed that humor can have a positive effect on
memory, possibly due to its positive effect on attention (Duncan, Smeltzer & Leap, 1990).
The workings of some of these functions can be explained through what Morreal refers to as mental
distance. According to this author, humor allows individuals (both initiator, focus and target) to
increase the mental distance they have towards a certain event (Morreal, 1997). Figuratively
speaking, humor allows individuals to adopt the view of the eagle instead of the view of the mouse.
An effect of this can be seen in humor’s effect on stress, which was already touched upon in the
previous section. For Morreall, the apparent fact that humor enables individuals to effectively deal
with stressful situations is because it is the exact opposite of stress; whereas stress causes
incongruities (Morreall explains the functions of humor from an incongruity theory viewpoint) to be
perceived as threatening, humor does not. By letting individuals retain a feeling of control over the
situation and by preventing their mental distance towards the situation from decreasing, thereby
allowing them to maintain a clear perspective, humor can function as a tool for individuals to deal
with stress (Morreal, 1997). Similarly, by adopting an eagle’s perspective on a situation, it becomes
easier to see alternative ways of solving a problem. This in turn caters creativity and quite possibly
consequently also performance. In addition, mental distance allows individuals to see the relativity of

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

a certain stressful situation, thereby enabling them to decrease feelings of anger and increase a
sense of joy. Other authors, despite not denoting it as such, seem to see agree with the mental
distance construct. For example, Eisenhardt et al. (1997) state that humor allows people to distance
themselves from stressful events, to see themselves somewhat more from an outsider’s perspective.
Dixon and Kahn make similar claims (Dixon, 1980 in Avolio et al., 1999; Kahn, 1989 in Thomas & Al-
Maskati, 1997). Despite the fact that mental distance has not been empirically studied up until this
day, it can certainly still function as a solid theoretical starting point for future research. For example,
mental distance can be taken as a measure of personal involvement, analyzing the extent to which
and the reasons why individuals feel or do not feel involved in a particular situation and consequently
why they do or do not appreciate a specific humorous occurrence. According to Morreall (1997),
these extents and reasons can be subsumed under four categories: distance of fiction, distance in
space, distance in time and personal distance. The first relates to the difference between reality and
fiction, explaining for example the ability to appreciate aggression and violence in cartoons. The
second relates to the spatial distance between an individual and a phenomenon. The main theorem
of this category is that the further an individual is located from a certain event, the more likely he or
she is to perceive it as being humorous. The third relates to one’s mental distance to occurrences in
the past, for example partially explaining why jokes about the Second World War are more likely to
be appreciated today than they would have been directly after the event. The last category contains
the ways in which an individual may or may not be personally affected by an event, for example
explaining why events recorded in so-called Funniest Home Videos TV shows are considered to be
funny, while being personally exposed to similar events is less likely to be considered as being so. In
sum, future empirical investigations can use mental distance as a way of categorizing a person’s
engagement with a certain humorous occurrence; categorizing some of the reasons why humor is or
is not considered to be funny.

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

Creativity
Sense of joy & positive mood
Motivation
Individual productivity
Ability to deal with unexpected events
Memory Feelings of anger

+ -
+
Mental
Distance

Humor

F IGURE 4 P OSITIVE P SYCHOLOGICAL F UNCTIONS

P O S I TI VE O R G A N I Z A TI O N AL F U N C TI O N S
The third category, the organizational functions of humor are, as was pointed out at the
beginning of this chapter, closely related to the two categories discussed up until this point. They
include all of humor’s positive functions that concern relations between two or more individuals,
including elements such as solidarity, group cohesion and bonding, communication and group
performance, but also status differences, competition, criticism and conflict. Even though the
previous two categories are essential to being able to fully outline humor, the current category is
most important to discuss humor from a top-down managerial perspective, and was therefore also
the main focus of the literature research for the current paper. A good starting point in outlining the
many organizational functions of humor is Romero and Cruthirds’s Organizational Humor Model
(OHM from this point onwards) (Romero & Cruthirds, 2006). In this model (shown in Figure 5), six
“desired organizational outcomes”, together with five humor styles and two contextual moderators
determine how an initiator will use humor. In this section, the focus lies on the six desired
organizational outcomes, which will be discussed in a slightly different order than indicated in the
original OHM. More specifically, the outcomes will be discussed in a micro-to-macro-structure,
starting with organizational outcomes that are more specifically geared towards individual
employees towards the outcomes that influence the organization as a whole. Following the
discussion of the six outcomes, the last section of this chapter will provide a short outline of the
humor styles included in the OHM as well as the ways in which they are linked to the six outcomes
and the other chapters of the current paper.

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

Audience
Initiator &
Initiator

Humor Selection Humor Evaluation

Desired Organizational Outcomes: Outcome:
Humor Styles:
· Group cohesiveness (5) · Positive
· Affiliative Humor
· Communication (2) · Negative
· Self-enhancing
· Stress reduction (3)
· Aggressive
· Creativity (1)
· Mild aggressive
· Organizational culture (6)
· Self-defeating
· Leadership (4)

Moderators: Moderators:
· Ethnicity · Ethnicity
· Gender · Gender

F IGURE 5 O RGANIZATIONAL H UMOR M ODEL (R OMERO & C RUTHIRDS , 2006)

Creativity
The ways in which humor can cater creativity become particularly clear when they are
approached from an incongruity theory perspective: due to the fact that a major percentage of
humor essentially consists of incongruity, providing individuals with novel ways of approaching
reality, it opens up new perspectives, thereby allowing them to think outside the box, if not in a
wholly different box altogether. This way of thinking, of seeing things from surreal, imaginative and
fantastic points of view is what adults so often envy in children. Adults often have the tendency to
stay on the beaten path whereas children have no such sense of conformity and conservativeness.
Humor offers adults a way of partly retrieving this childish (in the most possible sense) viewpoint. As
Moreall states, quoting Edward de Bono, “Humor shows how perceptions set up in one way can
suddenly be reconfigured in another way. This is the essence of creativity” (de Bono, in Morreall,
1997, pp.114). Clearly, this links back to incongruity theory and the concept of bisociation discussed
earlier, which some authors most certainly seem to agree with (e.g., Robert in Klein, 2007; Robert &
Yan, 2005; Morreal, 1997). In sum, managers can employ humor and stimulate humor in
subordinates as a tool to break out of conventional thought patterns, to go beyond ‘normal’
brainstorming. By doing this, they may cater subordinates’ abilities to deal with and incorporate the
viewpoints of their fellow employees, thereby possibly increasing the amount and effectiveness of
communication between team members. In turn, this may increase the performance of the work
groups the individuals are located in. The final chapter of this paper will deal with practical ways of
achieving this goal; of using humor to stimulate the creativity and enhance the performance of
subordinates.

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

Communication
Humor can also function as a communication enhancer. Admittedly, the relation between
communication and humor is quite a direct one, as humor is essentially a means of communication.
However, the ways in which humor can enhance communication beyond mere verbal exchange of
ideas and knowledge are quite less evident. Firstly, a study on the use of humor in intercultural
business meetings concluded that humor was used to mark style shifts in conversations, defining a
style shift as a shift “between discourse systems (…) to manipulate language to produce an
appropriate stylistic effect” (Rogerson-Revell, 2007, pp.9). More specifically, humor was often used
to mark shifts from formal to more informal parts of the meetings (Rogerson-Revell, 2007). In
addition, humor was used strategically as an inclusionary (and exclusionary) tool to display power
relations, roles, norms and values within the meetings (Rogerson-Revell, 2007). Secondly, drawing
attention to the functions attributed to humor by Kahn in 1989, Thomas and Al-Maskati (1997)
indicated that humor enables people to deliver threatening messages in non-threatening ways.
Similar views have been adopted by various authors (e.g., Yarwood, 1995; Cruthirds, 2006). For
example, Cruthirds suggested that when delivering an essentially negative message, humor, by
adding a positive twist, and thereby a softening element to the message, makes it easier for the focus
(and the target) of the humor to be less resistant to the message itself (Cruthirds, 2006). In other
words, humor has the ability to alter the appearance of a message without changing its content.
Similarly, Duncan, Smeltzer and Leap (1990) suggest that individuals can use humor to “test the
water” before deciding whether or not a potentially harmful message should be delivered in a
specific situation. In addition, humor has been described as a socially acceptable, difficult-to-
challenge way of transferring aggression, dissent, critique and resistance (Greatbatch & Clark, 2003;
Holmes & Marra, 2002). In a sense, the motives an individual may have to use a specific kind of
humor in a specific situation, be it to test the water, to mark style shifts, or for an entirely different
purpose, can be seen as desired outcomes within this particular organizational outcome. In fact, the
motives probably often reside in more than one of the six desired organizational outcomes in the
OHM. For example, by using humor to enhance communication and creativity, an individual may also
aim to decrease conflict and stress within a work team.

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

Stress
Apart from enhancing creativity and stimulating communication, humor can also function as
a natural stress reliever, as was already touched upon at various points in this paper. Relating this
function to its organizational functions, it can be argued that humor provides individuals with socially
acceptable ways of emitting stress and anxiety, not only through laughter (and all other physical
manifestations of humor), but also by functioning as a socially acceptable tool to show dissent, anger
and resistance. By allowing an initiator of humor to encapsulate essentially negative messages in
socially acceptable gift-wrapping, stress can be reduced without severely affecting the situation, the
initiator, the focus and the target of the humor in any possible detrimental way. In relation to this
outcome, Eisenhardt et al. (1997) concluded that, by injecting humor into a decision process,
management team members are much better able to minimize interpersonal conflict and to
distinguish between issues stemming from differing personalities that will mostly affect individual
employees and issues stemming from and affecting the organization as a whole. In addition, by using
humor, management team members were shown to be better able to distinguish between facts and
opinions, to relieve their tension in a socially acceptable way and consequently to positively affect
communication within the management team.

Leadership
In addition to, and partially based on the functions discussed up until this point, humor also
has the ability to strengthen a manager’s leadership position. Most importantly, it can function as a
tool to maintain and reinforce social control. Please note that social control should not be
understood in a purely negative, Orwellian sense as it also includes normal, harmless ways of control
such as using humor to explain to a subordinate that the large majority of working time should be
allocated to work instead of socializing, or to explain the norms and values of an organization by
means of a humorous picture or video. Firstly, whether or not a manager allows humor in the first
place can have a major impact on the amount of control he or she has over subordinates. Collinson
(2002) draws attention to this by distinguishing between managers aiming to suppress and those
aiming to manufacture humor; in other words taxing or subsidizing humor. According to Collinson
both these ways of controlling humor often lead to the opposite of the initially intended effect. As he
states, “in seeking to manufacture humour, managers might actually suppress it. Conversely, in
attempting to suppress humour, those in power may unintentionally provoke it” (Collinson, 2002,
pp.282). Both of these consequences stem from the artificiality of the two strategies. Manufacturing
humor can easily lead to an insincere, bland, superficiality; just like a fake Rolex, it looks real but
seems to be missing some kind of magic or mystique. Suppressing humor on the other hand can, as
any other form of suppression lead to revolt, in this case for example in the form of a transformation

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

of humor into a more subversive, sly version of itself. Clearly, the best approach does not lie in pure
suppression or pure manufacture of humor. In addition to these two ways of social control through
humor, humor is also often used by leaders to express their superiority over subordinates, so as to
maintain their status towards them (Collinson, 2002; Holmes & Marra, 2002; Hughes & Avey, 2009).
Firstly, it has been claimed that managers and others in leadership positions often see themselves as
having a monopoly on humor (Collinson, 2002; Cooper, 2008). This claim was for example brought
into focus by Lundberg who, from a study conducted in a motor repair shop, concluded that jokes are
only considered funny when the initiator is of higher status than the focus, when the initiator and the
focus are of equal rank and that if the focus is of lower rank than the initiator, a reply-joke to a joke
made by the initiator is unlikely to be made (Lundberg, 1969 in Cooper, 2008). Conversely, from
various surveys in small task-oriented groups, Duncan and Feisal concluded that the actual existence
of a joking monopoly is highly debatable and that one’s formal status is not a major determinant of
one’s position in the ‘joking pattern’ in an organization (Duncan & Feisal, 1989). Duncan in turn
argues that, instead of maintaining the humor balance that arises out of the monopoly managers
often claim to have on humor, a climate of reciprocal humor should be created to allow humor to be
used as a tension-reliever by employees on all hierarchical levels (Duncan, 1982). In short, according
to Duncan, humor should not be monopolized to enable the usage of the wide array of positive
functions it can have. Secondly, when managers refrain from claiming ownership rights over humor,
their striving for status maintenance is often represented in the actual humor style employed by a
manager. For example, Cruthirds argues that aggressive humor, describable as humor used from a
superiority theory perspective, indicates a user’s power over others. Consequently, it can be used to
maintain a position of leadership (Cruthirds, 2006). However, aggressive humor, by its very nature,
often goes at the expense of an external party, because superiority can only be expressed in relation
to another, inferior party. Consequently, as Duncan argues, despite being able to contribute a
group’s cohesiveness, this cohesiveness “arises only from a threat and will not favorably influence
performance” (Duncan, 1982, pp.140). In other words, aggressive humor includes some at the
expense of excluding others; it increases the superiority of some at the expense of making others
inferior. Choosing aggressive humor as a tool to maintain superiority and control may therefore not
be the right decision. Focusing on another humor style, Duncan, once again based on research by
Lundberg, pointed out that leaders often refrain from self-depreciating humor to avoid a risk of
superiority and control (Duncan, 1982). However, self-depreciating humor can prove to be a good
social equalizer, by showing subordinates a manager’s imperfections and weaknesses. In other
words, self-depreciating humor can show subordinates that their manager is in fact just as human as
any other employee (Johnston, n.d.; Johansson & Woodilla, 2005). Despite losing some absolute
superiority over their employees by using this type of humor, managers may in fact increase control

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

over their subordinates based on mutual respect, trust and amiability. By creating an environment in
which there is no ownership claim over humor nor a focus on aggressive humor to maintain
superiority but instead a focus on the enhancement of respect, trust and friendliness through humor,
managers may be able to increase the cohesiveness of a group, as will be discussed next.

Cohesiveness
One of the first to describe the relation between humor and group cohesiveness in a work-
context was W. Jack Duncan, who stated that, using ethnic humor as an example, humor can
stimulate group cohesiveness through a comparison with other individuals or groups of individuals
(Duncan, 1982). By means of this comparison, the ways in which the ingroup (i.e., the initiator and
her target) and outgroup (i.e., the focus of the ethnic humor) differ from each other can be clarified,
thereby at the same time showing the commonalities of the members of the ingroup, and thereby
often also the ways in which the ingroup is superior to the outgroup (e.g., Yarwood, 1995). By using
humor in this way, the members of the ingroup are able to construct a sense of belonging and shared
identity; a sense of inclusion (e.g., Cruthirds, 2006; Duncan & Feisal, 1989; Hughes & Avey, 2009;
Morreall, 1997). Paul McGee (2001, in Cruthirds, 2006, pp.36) describes this function of humor by
stating that “shared laughter and the spirit of fun” form an “emotional glue *that+ enables team
members to stick together on the tough days, when members of the team need each other”.
Similarly, drawing on information from a study done by Coughlin in 2002, Robert and Yan (2005)
state that humor can prove to be a powerful and justified tool to build and sustain cohesiveness by
linking the humor to a positive or negative event shared by all members of the humor’s focus.
However, as was already pointed out in the previous section, what is an emotional glue for the
members of the ingroup is the exact opposite (i.e., an emotional excluder) for the individuals on the
other side of humor, the members of the outgroup. This ‘dark’ side of using humor as a tool to
increase group cohesiveness, which has often been linked to the earlier discussed superiority theory
(e.g., Rogerson-Revell, 2007), will be brought into focus in the following chapter. Research on group
cohesion and humor draws attention to an aspect that seems to be quite important for group
cohesion and humor to have a positive influence on a group’s effectiveness and productivity: time. In
a study on joint (i.e. shared and team-constructed) laughter, Kangasharju and Nikko (2009)
concluded that humor was often used (strategically or non-strategically) by managers to add to the
collegiality and thereby to the cohesiveness of a working team. They argued that, in this way,
managers were able to increase the effectiveness of meetings and each of the individual participants’
task performance. Nevertheless, another study concluded that humor does not increase a work
group’s effectivity if this work group has not had the time to develop certain group norms and values
and a certain amount of interpersonal trust (Romero, 2004).

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

The ability of humor to function as a social lubricant, in turn enhancing group performance, is, apart
from time, as was just pointed out, dependent on another factor. This conclusion can be drawn from
a study by Avolio, Howell and Sosik (1999) on the relation between humor and individual and group
performance, who concluded that humor was significantly positively related to individual and group
(i.e., unit) performance but that this positive relation was often moderated by the leadership style
(i.e., transformational, contingent reward and laissez-faire leadership) of the group’s leader. More
specifically, whereas transformational (motivation-focused) leadership was positively related to both
humor and performance, contingent reward (task-focused) leadership was merely positively related
to humor (i.e., a higher likelihood of using it) but negatively related to both individual and group
performance. The case was even worse for laissez-faire (avoidance-focused) leadership, which was
found to be negatively related to both humor and performance. Despite these quite clear results,
many factors might have influenced them, most of which, as the authors themselves also state, were
not taken into account in the study. For example, potential influences of humor style, organizational
culture, group culture, and gender of the leader were not taken into consideration. Taken together,
these conflicting, overlapping and quite inconclusive research results lead one to conclude that the
complexity of the role that humor plays in cohesiveness and performance is far greater and far less
stable than one would reasonably expect.

Organizational Culture
As was pointed out in the previous section, organizational culture may play a role in the
relation between leader style and group cohesiveness. Similarly, it might also have a profound effect
on the other organizational functions of humor discussed up until this point, as an organization’s
culture represents a central part of the organizational context of humor. According to George, Sleeth
and Siders (1999), an organizational culture generally consists of two elements: a philosophy about
the organization orientation towards its social environment and a set of written and unwritten rules
that constitute normal and appropriate behavior within the organization. In other words, it mostly
consists of organizational values and norms and other ‘tricks of the organizational trade’.
Duncan, Smeltzer and Leap (1990) draw attention to the fact that humor has proven to be a good
way of outlining an organization’s culture. For example, through humor, individuals can show what is
considered acceptable and non-acceptable humor in a specific organization. In addition, Romero and
Cruthirds state that, as different types of organizations employ different types and amounts of
humor, humor also indicates an organization’s uniqueness (Romero & Cruthirds, 2006). Further
supporting humor’s ability to visualize and reinforce an organization’s culture, some authors have
stated that humor is an important way of communicating important cultural factors, and that joking
and teasing play an important role in founding and maintaining group cultures (Romero & Pearson,

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

2004; Thomas & Al-Maskati, 1997; Yarwood, 1995). As Yarwood states, quoting Coser, “humor and
laughter often dramatize the violation of a norm and at the same time reaffirm the norm” (Coser,
1959, in Yarwood, 1995, pp.84). In relation to this, and somewhat contradicting humor’s function of
eye-opener and a tool to enhance creativity, it has also been connected to conservativeness. Robert
and Yan for example note that, in ‘tight’ (i.e., conservative and rigid) organizations, humor is likely to
be used as a way to maintain organizational norms and values and as a way to punish and ridicule
those who have deviated from these norms and values (Robert & Yan, 2005). Therefore, in such
organizations in particular, but expectedly in organizations in general, it is important for an individual
to be able to adopt an organization’s ‘normal’ humor. Any employee (including managers) has to be
able to adopt the preferential humor style or humor styles within an organization, know the
circumstances in which using humor is considered acceptable, as well as any other form of contextual
knowledge to be able to use humor effectively and satisfactorily. In fact, an employee’s ability to deal
with and effectively use the most prevalent styles and types of humor within an organization is a
good indicator of his or her socialization within an organization; of his or her immersion within the
organizational culture.

At this point, the many interconnections between humor, the six desired organizational outcomes
extracted from the OHM and all concepts and processes related to the organizational functions of
humor may still come across as a seamless web. Figure 6 may provide a tool with which to somewhat
disentangle this web. However, this model is not final or complete; it merely serves as a summary of
the organizational functions of humor as discussed in the current chapter. A number of aspects of
the figure require some clarification. Firstly, the direction of the arrowed lines denoting the relations
between the desired organizational outcomes and each of the individual concepts, represents the
way (i.e., direction) in which the relations were discussed in this paper. Secondly, some concepts are
included multiple times. This is done for the simple sake of maintaining clarity within the figure.
Thirdly, two concepts in the model, masking and social control, are in fact a combination of several
described concepts. The former refers to masking criticism, aggression, discontent and punishment in
the case of communication and masking stress and anxiety in the case of stress reduction. The latter
refers to maintaining an organization’s norms and values, manufacture or suppression of humor,
monopolizing humor and using humor as a way to delineate and reinforce status differences. Lastly,
the interconnections between desired organizational outcomes represent the clearest connections
found in the literature. This does not entail that the connections not included do not exist; they
merely were not sufficiently touched upon in the literature to be able to draw sufficiently grounded
conclusions to include them in the model.

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

HUMOR +

Group
Creativity Communication Stress reduction Leadership Organizational
cohesiveness
(1) (2) (3) (4) culture (6)
(5)

Style Shifting Social control Inclusion Inclusion
(Openness to) Masking
novel Superiority Social control
Inclusion
perspectives & (Opennes to)
insights novel
Masking perspectives & Organizational
insights uniqueness

Memory

Performance

(Hypothetical) relation
between desired
organizational outcomes

Relation between desired
organizational outcome
and concept discussed

(Hypothetical) relation between desired
organizational outcome and concept not
discussed

F IGURE 6 P OSITIVE O RGANIZATIONAL F UNCTIONS

H U M O R S TY L E S
Having discussed each of the six desired organizational outcomes as included in Romero and
Cruthird’s OHM, it is now time to focus on another section of this particular model, humor styles (as
shown in Figure 5). Before doing so and discussing the five humor styles incorporated in this model,
two somewhat different categorizations must be outlined. Firstly, in a study on conjoint humor,
referring to humor constructed and reinforced by two or more individuals, Janet Holmes (2006)
distinguishes between supportive and contestive humor, the former referring to humorous
statements intended to support and/or elaborate upon previous humorous statements, and the
latter referring to humor statements intended to challenge and/or debunk previous humorous
statements. Secondly, Cecily Cooper (2008) draws a distinction between maximally collaborative
humor, referring to humor intended to stimulate integration and cohesiveness among the individuals
taking part in the humorous exchange, and minimally collaborative (or competitive) humor, in which
the initiator’s aim is to produce the most witty statement of the entire humorous exchange. Holmes

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Positive Functions Managing Humor

and Marra (2002) outline similar distinctions, describing the first, between supportive and contestive
humor as a distinction in humor type (i.e., content) and the second, between minimally collaborative
and maximally collaborative humor as a distinction in humor styles. As will hopefully become clear
during the remainder of the current section, these two kinds of distinctions can be easily linked to
the Romero and Cruthirds’s five humor styles and show that humor styles are not as clearly
delineable or strict as one might conclude from the OHM. As can be deducted from the OHM, the
decision as to which humor style to use in a given situation is dependent on the desired
organizational outcome of the situation, moderated by the initiator’s gender and ethnicity (Romero
& Cruthirds, 2006). The first humor style, affiliative humor, is humor that aims to enhance social
interaction, relationship building and create a positive, non-hostile environment. The second, self-
enhancing humor is intended to boost one’s image relative to others. In comparison to affiliative
humor, this humor style is more geared towards the individual and often contains an element of
comparison. Thirdly, aggressive humor is humor as perceived from a superiority theory perspective,
meaning that it is at the expense of another party, thereby showing the initiator’s superiority over
that particular party. The fourth humor style, mild-aggressive humor is not so much a humor style by
itself, but a moderate version of the third; one that stays within the boundaries of positivity as
outlined in the current chapter. Linking back to Figure 5, this humor style is mostly related to
masking, social control, and, albeit to a somewhat smaller extent, inclusion. Lastly, self-defeating
humor, also referred to as self-depreciating (e.g., Johansson & Woodilla, 2005) or self-denigrating
(Cruthirds, 2006) humor is, apart from mere amusement, mostly employed to seek others’
recognition and reduce status differences. This humor style relates to an argument that was already
touched upon previously, namely the idea that, by using self-defeating humor, a manager can cater
to a group’s cohesiveness as well as perceptions of the manager’s social and relational stance
towards the other, lower-ranked individuals in the group.
As was already stressed earlier, the distinctions between humor styles provided in the OHM are in no
way final. For example, one can use aggressive humor just as easily to denigrate another initiator
within the same humorous exchange as to add to previously stated denigrating humor of external
parties. Similarly, self-defeating humor can just as easily be employed to support previous humorous
utterances as to challenge them. Once again, this reifies the versatile, flexible and fluid nature of
humor. In another effort to deal with its complexity, so as to make another step towards providing
the tips and guidelines in the fifth chapter of the current paper, the following chapter will deal with
the blunt, negative side of humor.

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Negative Functions Managing Humor

C HAPTER 3
N EGATIVE F UNCTIONS : THE B LUNT E DGE
Even though humor can have a wide variety of positive effects, as can quite justly be
concluded from the previous chapter, the line between these effects and their negative counterparts
is extremely thin. In other words, even if an initiator aims to cut with the sharp edge, variables
residing in the focus and target of humor, as well as in the situation in which the humor takes place,
may cause the sword to cut with its blunt edge. For example, whereas sexually tinted humor in front
of an all-male audience may be considered funny, it is likely to have the opposite effect on all-female
audience. Similarly, humor based on a certain negative event is likely to be considered as offensive
and disrespectful if the audience or a part of it has a personal connection with the negative event.
Therefore, if managers are not aware of the boundaries of humor and the points at which valuable
turns into detrimental, at which the sword cuts with its blunt side, using humor as a good (i.e.,
effective, efficient, contributive) managerial tool is likely to become an impossible task. This chapter
will discuss the elements making up humor’s blunt edge, thereby outlining the boundaries of humor.
Before moving on to the elements, one crucial side note must be made. Throughout most of the
literature reviewed for the current paper, the negative functions of humor seemed to be not as
clearly and certainly not as minutely discussed as its positive counterpart. Consequently, while it is
quite manageable to provide an overview of the latter, doing so for the former turned out to be
much more of a challenge. There is thus ample room for future research to be done on the dark side
of organizational humor. Bearing this side note in mind, let us move on to the elements of the blunt
edge, all of which will be discussed in a similar fashion as the previous chapter, once again adopting a
micro-to-macro approach, starting with the physical functions of humor, followed by its psychological
and organizational functions. Before moving on to the first of these three function categories
however, it is important to clarify a number of concepts. Firstly, negative humor refers to humor that
aims to put down others; to disdain and depreciate a focus. Secondly, negatively appreciated humor
refers to humor that fails to elicit an appreciative response in the target (and, to a lesser extent, the
focus) of the humor, because one or more conflicting variables (e.g., gender, age, personality, etc.).
In other words, one or more factors cause the target or the focus to interpret the humor as being not
humorous.

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Negative Functions Managing Humor

N E G A TI VE P H Y S I C AL F UN C TI O N S
Due to the scope, aim and focus area of the current literature review, the reviewed sources
did not provide detailed accounts of negative physical effects of humor. Nevertheless, Johnston (n.d.)
did touch upon one negative (i.e., detrimental) physiological effect (or function) of humor by stating
that negative (i.e., aggressive, exclusive, offensive) humor has the opposite physiological effect of
positive humor, causing the body to respond if it is under physical attack. It can therefore be justly
argued that, in the case of negatively appreciated negative humor, and negatively appreciated humor
in general, the body behaves as if under physical stress, thereby eliciting the exact opposite of the
physical effects discussed in the previous chapter.

N E G A TI VE P S Y CH O L O G I C AL F UN CT I O N S
The previous section already touched upon negative humor and the effects it has on the
human body for the individuals on the receiving end of humor; the focus (i.e., the ‘victim’ of humor),
and maybe also, albeit expectedly to a lesser extent, the target. Morreal draws attention to the party
on the other end of the negative humor, the initiator, and links this party to superiority as well as
relief theory. Related to the former, he states that “negative humor comes from fear, distrust, or
outright hostility” (Morreall, 1997, pp.230) and that it is in fact a way of covering up these negative
emotions. Related to the latter, he states that negative humor, more specifically negative humor
with denigrating content, comes from a sense of inadequacy of the initiator; from feelings of
insecurity and inferiority, and a self-perceived lack of control (Morreall, 1997). Admittedly, hiding
one’s insecurity through humor is not a negative function per se. However, if it is used as a tool to
ridicule and denigrate others, especially when these individuals are situated within the group
boundaries of the initiator, it may negatively affect interpersonal as well as in-group trust (No
Author, 1997). However, this may not always be case, as Schnurr notes. From a study on the relation
between teasing and the construction of leader identities, she concluded that a biting teasing style,
referring to relatively aggressive teasing statements that are mostly employed to disparage an
object, may work in certain contexts (Schnurr, 2009). For example, in the study this teasing style was
most often employed in the senior management team of a large IT company. Nevertheless, whether
or not aggressive humor is trust-impairing in an organizational environment is outside of the scope of
the current section; it will be discussed in full detail in chapter four of this paper.

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Negative Functions Managing Humor

N E G A TI VE O RG AN I Z A T I O N AL F UN C TI O N S
In a largely identical manner as the similarly-named section in the previous chapter, this
section will explain the negative organizational functions of humor; the ways in which humor can
have a detrimental effect on an organization’s operation. As in the previous chapter, this entails the
application of the six desired organizational outcomes as adopted from Romero and Cruthird’s OHM:
creativity, communication, stress reduction, leadership, group cohesiveness, and organizational
culture (Romero & Cruthirds, 2006). However, in the current case the initiator negatively affects
these six outcomes through humor, intentionally or unintentionally.

Creativity
Linking creativity to negative humor, Morreall states that negative humor comes from as well
as reinforces the tendency to reject novelty and innovation (Morreall, 1997). Instead of opening up
novel perspectives, as is the case in the earlier-discussed positive humor, it is employed to close
novel perspectives and to try and maintain a conservative, narrow viewpoint. From this it logically
follows that negative humor can obstruct creativity, in the initiator, the target and, through the
negative physical and psychological effects of negative humor mentioned earlier, in the focus.
Secondly, creativity can be obstructed if one fails to use humor’s power in a sufficiently balanced
manner. This statement can be best described by Dewitte and Verguts’ tri-partite classification of
jokes, which has been re-introduced and extended by Romero and Pescosolido to apply to all
attempts at organizational humor (i.e., humor used in an organizational context) (Romero &
Pescosolido, 2008). To visualize the classification, an ‘organizational humor continuum’ has been
created, as shown in Figure 7.

Class 1 Mundane Absurd Class 3

Class 2

F IGURE 7 O RGANIZATIONAL H UMOR C ONTINUUM

The first, class one humor, includes all humorous attempts that do not bring forth appreciative
responses from the focus because they contain premises that the focus considers too commonplace
or dull. Class three humor, at the other end of the continuum, contains utterances that are not
successful at eliciting appreciative responses from the focus because they are considered to be too
distasteful or absurd. Class two humor strikes the right balance between mundane and absurd, and
between acceptability and novelty. To link back the organizational humor continuum to the previous
discussion, it can be argued that class three humor includes negative humor and that class two
mostly consists of successful attempts at the more positive kinds of humor. Despite the fact that

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Negative Functions Managing Humor

class two humor is the most desirable category of organizational humor, it too has its boundaries and
downsides, especially when one takes into consideration the negative effects of humor on
communication.

Communication
Humor can negatively affect communication, the second desired organizational outcome, in
a variety of ways. Firstly, it can lead to distraction. It can distract individuals from tasks, goals and
objectives, thereby possibly negatively affecting individual as well as group performance (Bing, 2009;
Romero & Pescosolido, 2007; Vuorela, 2004). Secondly, humor can function as a wedge between
individuals, as it can distract individuals from a team’s or organization’s norms and values, in which
case it can lead them of the beaten path, towards class three humor; beyond the boundaries of what
is deemed acceptable, normative humor. This effect is most easily seen in the case of teasing and
putdown humor. Terrion and Ashforth draw attention to this by stating that if the ‘players’ are not
within the same play frame (as discussed in chapter one), teasing and putdown humor can easily be
negatively appreciated (e.g., as being offensive) thereby possibly negatively affecting group
development (Terrion & Ashforth, 2002). However, the authors concluded that this negative effect is
certainly not always prevalent. In fact, they concluded that putdown humor has both the potential of
functioning as a bridge (i.e., facilitating inclusion) as well as a wedge (i.e., facilitating exclusion)
(Terrion & Ashforth, 2002).

Stress
As was discussed in the previous chapter and at various points throughout this paper, humor
can alleviate stress in numerous ways. However, it seems to be the case that it can just as easily have
the opposite effect. Judging from the literature, a profound amount of this opposite effect stems
from humor’s masking function, referring to humor as a socially acceptable disguise for criticism,
aggression, discontent, punishment, stress and anxiety. If this masking function is taken too far, it can
in fact lead to the opposite of the initially intended effect, causing it to blow a message’s cover and
show its true, potentially offensive colors. Admittedly, it can be argued that as long as the cover is
not blown, it is perfectly acceptable to use humor’s masking capability. Nevertheless, one has to
keep in mind that the line separating humor’s two edges is precariously thin; it is best and certainly
safest to stay well within the periphery of humor’s positive side. Failure to do so may result in
nothing less than psychological, social, political, organizational and often financial catastrophe; from
managing directors who were forced to give up their positions because of a careless use of humor
(e.g., Collinson, 2002) to costly law suits dealing with harassment due to sexual and racially tinted
humor (e.g., Collinson, 2002; Duncan, Smeltzer, & Leap, 1990; Yarwood, 1995). Lyttle, in referring to
research done by Quinn in 2000, draws attention to a fairly obvious but extremely important finding,

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Negative Functions Managing Humor

namely that the chances of offending someone in an organization increase with the amount of
diversity in the organization (Lyttle, 2007). As more and more organizations consist of people from
various social and cultural backgrounds, and the ratio of women to men in organizations is also
growing ever larger with ever-increasing pace (albeit primarily in westernized societies), this finding
is a crucial one to bear in mind when considering the more aggressive, depreciating kinds of humor;
failing to do so will quite easily fail to allow individuals to relieve their stress. In fact, it may even
increase their stress and anxiety levels.

Leadership
Humor can also have a negative impact on leadership, the fourth desired organizational
outcome. The main way it can have such an effect is due to what can be referred to as status erosion,
referring to the ways in which the status subordinates attribute to a manager erodes due to over- or
misuse of humor. Firstly, if a manager engages in an overly large amount of self-depreciating humor,
the increase in approachability and equality through the reduction of status differences that this kind
of humor is mostly used to achieve may become too large. This may potentially lead to a status
difference reduction that is so significant that subordinates can start considering the superordinate
as a subordinate (Lyttle, 2007). This potentiality is especially prevalent in situations in which
credibility is essential (Romero & Cruthirds, 2006). Think of a senior manager or CEO, who, in a
speech to all members of his or her organization, engages in a vast amount of self-depreciating
humor when presenting the organization’s fairly negative annual report. Is it likely that he or she will
be perceived as a knowledgeable, powerful and good leader? Or will employees attribute some of
the negative results of the organization to the leader’s lack of competence?
Secondly, if managers put too much emphasis on humor in general and give it a role that is too
central in the organization, it may lead to a wide variety of detrimental effects, of which a decrease
in power and status only represent a small portion. In support of this statement, Collinson states, as
was already pointed out earlier, that “in seeking to manufacture humor, managers may actually
suppress it” (Collinson, 2002, pp.279). This is most likely to be the case because it strikes employees
as artificial and insincere. In a similar train of thought, Samanta Warren concluded that structured
fun, defined as “the myriad activities and ideas suggested as ways of injecting fun into the
workplace” (Warren, in Johansson & Woodilla, 2005, pp.177), and which logically also includes
humor, may in fact have the quite the opposite effect of fun. In her words, the artificial employment
of humor can potentially cause “a variety of moral, ethical and potentially inhumane consequences
for the employee and have damaging effects for the organization in the form of litigation and/or a
workforce that views management with contempt and distrust” (Warren, in Johansson & Woodilla,
2005, pp.197). In addition, as was already pointed out earlier in this paper, artificially manufacturing

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Negative Functions Managing Humor

humor does not solve the issues or problems at the heart of an organization; it can merely mitigate
them somewhat and cover them up. In other words, humor is not a cure; it can merely somewhat
decrease the intensity of symptoms.

Group Cohesiveness
Just as much as humor can enhance a group’s cohesiveness through inclusionary statements,
in a very similar way it can also decrease a group’s cohesiveness through exclusionary, depreciating,
and aggressive statements (Rogerson-Revell, 2007). For example, ridicule, despite the fact that it
caters a release of laughter, can also close down trust (No Author, 1997). As a group’s cohesiveness
largely depends on inter-individual trust, overuse of ridicule, as well as any other form of humor that
contains an element of depreciation or ‘putdown’ (e.g., teasing), can seriously hinder the
construction and reinforcement of group cohesiveness (Duncan, Smeltzer & Leap, 1990; Terrion &
Ashforth, 2002). This possible effect of humor was already touched upon in the previous section, and
once again shows that the boundaries between the six desired organizational outcomes often seem
non-existent and very thin to say the least. Clearly, the majority of the factors, variables, and
processes making up humor in a work-context have multiple interconnections.

Organizational Culture
The negative effect humor can have on organizational culture seems to be quite similar to its
potentially negative effect on group cohesiveness. As can be seen in the upper part of Figure 8,
organizational culture is closely linked to communication, which is then again closely linked to
leadership and group cohesiveness. In assessing the negative effects of humor on organizational
culture, the following conclusion can be drawn from the literature: if humor is taken too far, if it
crosses the boundaries of the sharp side onto the blunt side of the double-edged sword, it may,
instead of reaffirming and strengthening the elements of an organization’s culture (as was discussed
in the previous chapter), harm them and even destroy them. For example, if one of the values of an
organization is a strong hierarchy and a prominent role of status, leaders who engage in too much
self-depreciating humor may, by doing so, lose some of their leadership and status power; they may
fall of their organizational pedestal. In a similar way, by manufacturing humor without showing the
boundaries of humor, subordinates may be led to believe that depreciating humor towards managers
is justified, as it may seem to them to be a way of creating a fun working environment. On the other
hand, by suppressing humor in order to maintain a leadership position, as was already pointed out
earlier, managers may in fact cause it to chance into a more subversive, below-the-belt version of
itself. It is easy to come up with many more examples of ways in which humor should not be used, of
how it can have catastrophic consequences to both individuals and organizations. Nevertheless, it is

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Negative Functions Managing Humor

all the more difficult to show the ways in which it can have a positive effect, in which it can truly
flourish, if one crucial dimension of humor is not discussed: context.

HUMOR -

Group
Creativity Communication Stress reduction Leadership Organizational
cohesiveness
(1) (2) (3) (4) culture (6)
(5)

Distraction Status erosion Exclusion Unbalanced
Reject novel Masking use of humor
perspectives & (blowing (boundaries)
insights Task-oriented Suppression
your
communication through
cover)
manufacture
Unbalanced Suppression Manufacture
use of humor through through
(class 1 and manufacture suppression
class 3)

Performance

(Hypothetical) relation
between desired
organizational outcomes

Relation between desired organizational
outcome and concept or between
concept and concept discussed

(Hypothetical) relation between desired
organizational outcome and concept not
discussed

F IGURE 8 N EGATIVE O RGANIZATIONAL F UNCTIONS

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Joking Relationships Managing Humor

C HAPTER 4
J OKING R ELATIONSHIPS : P UTTING H UMOR INTO C ONTEXT
Up until this point, several attempts have been made to refrain from drawing context into
the discussion so as to maintain clarity in outlining the two edges of the double-edged sword and the
theories forming its basis. However, not discussing it at all would not do justice to the concept and its
centrality in humor. As Mary Jo Hatch stated, “words do not derive their meaning from objects in, or
objective properties of, the real world to which they refer and which they represent, rather words
form a system of relationships among themselves and these relationships constitute meaning”
(Hatch, 1997, pp.276). In other words, what humor is and is not is all in the eye of the beholder;
largely dependent on his or her interpretation. With regards to the current paper, context should be
seen as the combination of the variables that affect an individual’s interpretation in a specific
situation; whatever causes his or her point of view to be different from the other individuals present
in the situation. Knowledge about these ‘contextual variables’ is evidently vital to individuals
engaging in humor. However, gathering this knowledge in its entirety is an extremely difficult task.
Firstly, variations between the situational actors (i.e., the initiator, target and focus of humor) in
terms of gender, nationality, ethnicity and religion, but also in terms of intelligence, moods, family
backgrounds and personalities play an important role in the success of humor (e.g., Bell, 2009;
Collinson, 2002; Duncan, 1982; Holmes, 2006; Mcllheran, 2006; Robert & Yan, 2005); differences
within these variables may lead to very different interpretations of humor. Secondly, the situation
itself is also linked to specific ‘rules of conduct’. For example, would you make the same jokes during
a job interview as you would during a business meeting? Would you initiate similar humor at a
funeral as you would at your company’s Christmas party? Clearly, the amount of variation between
situations can be so vast and is so fluid that any summary of the factors at play within a specific
situation will be grossly incomplete. However, there is one concept which incorporates many of the
aforementioned variables and which often plays a particularly important role within organizations:
joking relationships. The remainder of this chapter will focus on discussing this concept, for a number
of reasons. Firstly, it provides a good introduction into the many roles context can play in the
appreciation and production of humor, as joking relationships can be based on differences in age,
gender, nationality, intelligence and culture. Variables such as these play an important role in
individuals’ ability to produce and appreciate certain kinds of humor. Joking relationships, by their
ability to override these variables, therefore provide a good way of approaching and discussing these
variables. Secondly, joking relationships allow an initiator to be better able to make efficient use of
the positive functions of humor, as will be discussed in this section. With regards to the perspective

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Joking Relationships Managing Humor

and the goals of the current paper, putting specific emphasis on them is therefore particularly
important.
A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, who coined the term, defined a joking relationship as “a relation
between two persons in which it is by custom permitted, and in some instances required, to tease or
make fun of the other, who in turn, is required to take no offence” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952, pp.90 in
Yarwood 1995). Thomas and Al-Maskati outlined two main reasons for the emergence of joking
relationships in a business context, both of which are strongly linked to the functions of humor
discussed in the previous two chapters. The first is that joking relationships can provide individuals
with a tool with which to manage conflict and alleviate interpersonal tension, thereby maintaining an
equilibrium in what Thomas and Al-Maskati refer to as being “awkward relationships” (Thomas & Al-
Maskati, 1997, p.521). In a business context, these awkward relationships mostly result from the fact
that employees share a number of interests (e.g., team or department targets to be met) but are also
exposed to a certain degree of interpersonal tension and conflict (e.g., resulting from differing
personal opinions, priorities and interests). Consequently, individuals find themselves in a state of
‘independent dependence’, constantly in a need to maintain a balance between personal and
communal interests. Taking a step back to the previous two chapters, the ways in which joking
relationships can help individuals in doing so become clear. Firstly, joking relationships can mask
negative messages that, without a humorous cover, would be very likely to be considered offensive
or overly aggressive. If the initiator, target, and focus of humor are aware of the fact that they are in
joking relationships with each other, the focus and target know that the humor aimed at the focus
should not be taken as an offense or an insult. In this way, joking relationships allow an initiator to go
somewhat beyond the boundaries of what would be considered acceptable in the absence of joking
relationships. Consequently, he or she is able to vent stress and tension without causing an offense
or insulting his or her focus. Secondly, joking relationships open up new ways of inclusion and social
control through humor. By enabling an initiator to take humor somewhat further without offending
the individuals at the receiving end, joking relationships can help to clearly outline the norms and
values, as well as the boundaries of acceptability of the team or the organization. This however
highlights a gap in the current research on this particular topic. Whereas the existence of joking
relationships seems to be commonly accepted, the requirements for their development are much
less clear. The only requirement found in the literature is the existence of awkward relationships,
indicating that a certain degree of conflict (potential or actual) between individuals is necessary for
joking relationships to emerge. However, no indication was provided as to the nature of these
conflicts (e.g., their bases and durations), nor any account of the influence of contextual variables
such as age, gender and nationality on the emergence of joking relationships. For example, if two
individuals are of equal age or of equal gender, joking relationships may develop faster (due to a

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Joking Relationships Managing Humor

shared elements of identity) than if the individuals were to reside in different age groups or were of
differing genders. On the other hand, if two individuals, who are dependent on each other for the
performance of certain tasks, are of different genders or ages, awkward relationships may be more
likely to develop due to conflicts stemming from these differing variables. This entails that the exact
same variable, in this case gender or age, may have quite opposite effects in different situations. This
is something which, judging by the literature, has not received sufficient, if any attention up until this
point in time. Nevertheless, one element that the literature does discuss is the connection between
joking relationships and status maintenance, forming the second reason for the emergence of joking
relationships. With regards to this reason, it is important to point out that joking relationships can
either take a symmetrical (i.e., reciprocal, circular) or an asymmetrical (i.e., one-way, linear) form
(Yarwood, 1995; Thomas & Al-Maskati, 1997; Vuorela, 2005). The latter is commonly employed when
those at the initiating end of the joking relationship strive to maintain a position of power, and is
consequently primarily used in a top-down fashion (from individuals on high formal authority levels
to individuals on lower formal authority levels). Through this kind of joking relationship, managers
can maintain a sense of superiority and social control over their subordinates by being allowed to
engage in humor that would normally be regarded as offensive, but which, given the existence of the
joking relationship, is not regarded as being so. The individual (or individuals) at the other end of the
joking relationship however, even though allowed to respond to the humor of the initiator, are only
allowed to do so to a smaller degree (i.e., adhering to lower boundaries of acceptability than those at
the upper level of the relationship) (Vuorela, 2005). What is important to note at this point is that
whereas some authors claim that asymmetrical joking relationships only exist in the form just
mentioned (i.e., top-down) (e.g., Coser in Yarwood, 1995), others seem to conclude the opposite. For
example, Duncan (1985, in Yarwood, 1995) asserted that asymmetrical joking relationships are only
top-down if the individuals with a formal authority position are also bestowed with an informal
authority position by subordinates. If this is not the case, Duncan states, the resulting joking
relationships are either asymmetrical joking relationships directed bottom-up or symmetrical joking
relationships. This introduces the second general form of joking relationships: symmetrical joking
relationships. Unlike their asymmetrical counterpart, these joking relationships are most often used
to decrease class and status differences, up until the extent that the individuals of higher status
perceive this to be suitable. As was discussed in chapter two, a climate of reciprocal humor, in which
all engaged individuals are allowed to joke at and about each other, can enhance a group’s
cohesiveness, a manager’s informal authority, can cater to the strength of an organization’s culture,
and can consequently enhance the performance of both individual employees and work teams.
Symmetrical joking relationships are particularly effective at reaching these goals because they, by
nature, cater to the intimacy between individuals. This increase in intimacy has a direct impact on the

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Joking Relationships Managing Humor

ways in which individuals are likely to respond to each other’s humor, thereby again catering to the
intimacy between the involved individuals, etcetera. In support of this statement, a study on
responses to failed humor concluded that the more intimate the relationship between two
individuals, the more individuals on the receiving end of humor are likely to respond negatively to
humorously-intended statements that fail to elicit a positive response (Bell, 2009). Consequently, it
can be stated that joking relationships enhance honesty and transparency between individuals. A
reason for this may lie in the fact that, as individuals in a joking relationship know that they can joke
without quickly running the risk of causing an offense, there is more opportunity to truly speak one’s
mind than there would be in the absence of a joking relationship. Therefore, a (symmetrical) joking
relationship caters to an individual’s ability to make more efficient use of the positive functions of
humor. A number of caveats must be given however, especially with regards to a manager’s position
in a joking relationship. As was already discussed, some authors claim that asymmetrical joking
relationships are often directed top-down. In addition, symmetrical joking relationships have been
claimed to mostly exist between peers (i.e., individuals on equal hierarchical levels) (e.g., Bradney
1957, in Thomas & Al-Maskati, 1997). Given the concepts, processes and theories touched upon in
this paper, it can be concluded that the actual case lies somewhere in between these two claims.
Managers, constantly in need to retain a certain amount of status and superiority over their
subordinates, as well as to motivate and guide subordinates on a more personal level, always find
themselves in a balancing act between “buddy” and “boss”. Humor, unfortunately, is no exception in
this: if managers employ a too high amount of self-depreciating humor, they may harm their status
and power over their subordinates; using a too high amount of aggressive humor may lead to anger,
frustration and discontent, thereby harming the cohesiveness between a manager and his or her
subordinates; putting too much of an emphasis on manufacture of humor may lead to its
suppression, while putting too much of an emphasis on suppression of humor may lead to its
manufacture. Joking relationships can alleviate some of the burdens this balancing act brings onto
the work floor by allowing a manager to somewhat broaden the boundaries of acceptability, giving
him or her more freedom of action; enlarging the sharp edge of the double-edged sword and quite
possibly making the blunt edge somewhat less blunt. Nevertheless, the balancing act, which is
admittedly a precarious one, always remains present. Consequently, it may lead a manager to
conclude that it is best to refrain from using any humor at all, for the sheer sake of safety. In doing
so, however, he or she also loses all of the positive functions of humor that have been outlined in the
current paper. As a way to try and help to overcome this dilemma, the following section of this paper
provides a small set of guidelines that will enable the use of humor in a safe, responsible and
effective manner.

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the ALBAC Method Managing Humor

C HAPTER 5
M ANAGING H UMOR : THE ALBAC METHOD
The preceding chapters outlined the elements of the double-edged sword: its theoretical basis,
its blunt and sharp edge and its hilt. Based on what has been discussed in these chapters, the current
chapter outlines what can be referred to as ‘the ALBAC method’. This method essentially consists of
five general guidelines (abbreviated into A.L.B.A.C.) which, in combination, allow for a positive use of
humor in a managerial context. Before moving on to the elements of the method, some concepts
require clarification. Firstly, ‘situational actors’ refer to all individuals present at a given moment in
time at which an initiator engages in humor, directed towards a particular target and going at the
expense of a particular focus. The latter can be an individual or a group of individuals, but also an
animal or an inanimate object. Secondly, ‘boundaries of acceptability’ refer to the boundaries an
individual or group of individuals has when evaluating humor, beyond which humor is not considered
to be acceptable or appropriate. Bases for these boundaries can stem from variables residing within
individuals (e.g., age, gender or nationality) or within the particular situation in which the initiator
engages in humor (e.g., during lunch, during a business meeting, after an unfruitful business meeting
or an alarming presentation of a company’s annual figures).
Having clarified these concepts, let us continue with the elements of the ALBAC method.

I. Adapt:
a. Adapt to your goals: What is it you want to achieve by using humor? Are you striving for the
relief of tension and anxiety (as described in the section on relief theory)? Are you trying to
use humor as a tool to distinguish yourself from and elevate yourself above others (as
described in the section on superiority theory)? Are you trying to enhance a group’s
cohesiveness? Are you aiming to stimulate creativity in others? Or are you merely trying to
mark style shifts in a conversation? Considerations like these should be taken into account,
as they allow you to determine the best choice of humor style, topic and occasion for humor.
For example, in a very formal meeting in which is essential to maintain a position of formal
power and you are striving to mark a style shift from a formal to an informal part of the
meeting, it is advisable to choose affiliative humor over self-depreciating humor. Similarly, in
a meeting with a female superior (with whom you merely have a formal relation), it is
advisable to choose self-elevating humor over aggressive, sexually tinted humor.

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the ALBAC Method Managing Humor

b. Adapt to situational variables: Firstly, determine whether or not the use of humor is likely to
be considered acceptable in a given situation. Secondly, if you consider the use of humor to
be appropriate, analyze the characteristics of the situation. For example, is it formal or more
informal? What has led to the emergence of the situation? Is it a regular meeting with
members of your team or a crisis meeting?
c. Adapt to personal variables: Firstly, determine the characteristics of the audience (i.e., target
as well as focus). What are their ages, genders and ethnicities? If you know them personally,
what are their hobbies and personality traits? In addition, determine whether you expect the
members of the audience to ‘get the joke’. This entails determining whether the incongruity
within the humor (discussed in chapter one) is clear and understandable and which
information the audience needs to be able to understand and ‘get’ it. Secondly, determine
whether you are in joking relationships with the members of the target and the focus. Being
in a joking relationship with the latter is especially important, as he or she (or they) will be
the butt of your joke. Of course, the best case scenario would be shared joking relationships
with all situational actors as this would allow you to safely take humor somewhat further
without causing an offense. If this is not the case, it is best to stay within the ‘normal’
boundaries of acceptability. Thirdly, if you have determined to be in joking relationships with
all situational actors, determine the direction of the joking relationships. Are they
symmetrical or asymmetrical? If they are of the latter kind, determine whether you are in the
top or bottom position.

II. Learn:
a. Learn the rules of conduct: Firstly, determine the boundaries of acceptability of the
organization as a whole. Determine whether particular styles of humor or particular topics
are off-boundaries, based on the norms and values of the organization. Also, determine
which humor styles and topics are most commonly used. Secondly, if different from the
former, determine the boundaries of acceptability of your department and work team. Are
their particular rules of conduct to keep in mind and adapt humor to?
b. Learn about your co-workers, subordinates and superiors: Firstly, determine whether basic
personal characteristics of the situational actors (e.g., age, gender and ethnicity) may cause
conflicts when employed in humor. For example, sexist jokes are generally less likely to be
appreciated by an all-female audience than by an all-male audience (e.g., Collinson, 2002;
Duncan, 1982; Romero & Cruthirds, 2006). Secondly, if possible, determine whether specific
personal characteristics of the situational actors (e.g., personality, social background,
intelligence) may cause conflicts.

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the ALBAC Method Managing Humor

III. Balance:
a. Do not use humor as a remedy: humor in itself only deals with the symptoms of stress, not
with the actual causes of the stress itself. In other words, despite the fact that it has the
ability to help individuals deal with stress, it cannot directly aid in getting rid of the causes of
stress; it can only deal with the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, a manager or an organization
should not simply fully rely on humor to deal with managerial and organizational problems;
even though humor is a good starting point and temporary tool, it should not be used as a
structural long-term solution to alleviate stress.
b. Do not use humor too often: apart from overly relying on the use of humor as a means to
deal with stress, overly relying on the use of humor in general may also have negative
consequences. As was pointed in chapter two, using an excessively large amount of humor
may distract individuals from the tasks at hand and consequently may lead to a decrease in
individual and group performance. Also, neither overly manufacture nor suppress humor:
overreliance on manufacture of humor may cause it to be suppressed while overreliance on
its suppression may lead it to transform into unintended forms. Therefore, it is important to
balance suppression and manufacture, providing clear guidelines and standards in
accordance with the norms and values of the organization, department, work team, as well
as the norms and values of individual employees.
c. Balance the continuum: in relationship to the previous guideline, it is important to determine
whether the humor continuum (as described in chapter four) differs along departments and
work teams. If this is the case, determine the ways in which (e.g., by choosing specific topics)
you can avoid the two extremes of the continuum.

IV. Avoid:
a. If you are not sure, don’t: if you are uncertain whether or not the audience will appreciate
particular humor, whether or not the topic of humor is appropriate, and whether or not the
situation is suitable for using humor in the first place, refrain from engaging in it. In cases
such as these, it is better to be safe than sorry.
b. Avoid negative humor: negative humor is much more likely to fail to be appreciated than
positive humor, because it always contains an element of competition and aggression and
always goes at the expense of another party. Despite the fact that humor directed at a party
that is not present in a given situation may seem harmless at first sight, there is no certainty
that this is the case in reality. Negative humor always, no matter if the party aggressed
against is present or not, has the potential of offending others. Therefore, if possible, try to

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the ALBAC Method Managing Humor

avoid it. For example, instead of increasing a team’s cohesiveness by putting down an
external party, focus on the qualities within the team when using humor. In this way, you can
steer around negative humor and the potentially negative impacts that using it may have.

V. Control:
a. Mark the boundaries of acceptability: if a subordinate (or a superior) makes a humorous
statement that you perceive as being offensive and off-boundaries (either towards you or
towards another party), clearly show that you do not appreciate the statement. Not doing so
makes you an accomplice in the humorous statement and in its resulting (negative) effects
(Lyttle, 2007). In addition, not showing your disagreement with the statement does not teach
the initiator the boundaries of humor (Rikleen, 2007). However, simply showing
disagreement by not eliciting an appreciative response or by saying “that’s not funny” may
not be enough. It is much better, especially in severe cases, to discuss the inappropriateness
of the humor with the initiator in private, explaining why you think the humor is off-
boundaries (Rikleen, 2007).
b. Stick to the boundaries of acceptability: Firstly, even when you find yourself in asymmetrical
joking relationship in which you form the upper position, thereby allowing you to take humor
somewhat further than in the absence of such a relationship, the general boundaries of
acceptability always have to be maintained. In general, this entails avoiding from engaging in
negative humor, especially when it deals with gender-, age-, ethnicity-, or religion-related
topics. Secondly, as you, the manager, are to be an example and a role model for your
subordinates, it is of vital importance that you strictly adhere to the boundaries of
acceptability. If you fail to do so, your subordinates are more likely to ignore them as well,
albeit possibly not in your presence.
c. Maintain your position of informal and formal status: firstly, avoid using an overly large
amount of self-depreciating humor. Admittedly, in general, self-depreciating humor has a
‘humanizing’ effect: it allows you to temporarily step of your hierarchical pedestal, allowing
your subordinates to see you as a fellow employee instead of a ‘boss’. However, using it too
often may lead you to break down your hierarchical pedestal altogether, quite possibly
causing you to be perceived as incompetent and unproductive (Romero & Cruthirds, 2006).
Secondly, as was already mentioned avoid negative, aggressive humor. Purely engaging in
this kind of humor is very likely to lead to a decrease your trustworthiness and sociability in
the eyes of your subordinates.

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Conclusion Managing Humor

C ONCLUSION
In the introduction to this paper, the metaphor of the double-edged sword was presented.
Using this metaphor as a structure, each chapter dealt with a specific element of the sword,
ultimately aiming to answer the central thesis question of the current paper: “How and to what
extent can humor be used as a managerial tool?”.
Chapter one outlined the characteristics of superiority, incongruity and relief theory, thereby
providing a theoretical basis for the other three chapters. It was concluded that none of the theories
is able to fully explain humor by itself, and that instead they should be seen as explanations of humor
from a different perspective. Taken together however, they provide a good basis upon which to
explain the sharp (positive) and blunt (negative) edges of the double-edged sword. By adopting a
micro-to-macro approach, starting with the physical functions and effects, followed by the
psychological and organizational functions of humor, both edges were discussed. One major
conclusion drawn from both of these chapters was that, whether or not one is able to cut with the
sharp side is primarily dependent on the hilt of the double-edged sword: context. This was the
general topic of the fourth chapter. However, instead of outlining all contextual variables coming into
play in a particular situation in which an initiator engages in humor, the chapter instead focused on
one concept: joking relationships. Apart from clarifying why interpretations of humor may vary
widely, this particular concept allowed for an implementation of the functions of humor discussed in
chapter two and three, and the unique roles managers have in humor. The final, fifth chapter
provided five tips on how to use organizational humor as a manager. Overall, it can be stated that
there are many ways in which a manager can use humor as a managerial tool, from increasing the
physical and psychological fitness of individual employees to achieving the six desired organizational
outcomes from Romero and Cruthirds’s Organizational Humor Model. However, it is of vital
importance to carefully adapt humor to both the audience and the situation. Only then can one
make sure to always cut with the sharp edge of the double-edged sword.

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