Team Norway Meeting - Flickr

Is leadership team humor always humor? Take a look at a common example. Assume you are sitting in a leadership team meeting for a strategic business unit. The senior vice president sitting next to you makes a potentially humorous comment about the senior vice president sitting across the table. When the other team members (including the person to whom it was directed) hear the comment, they laugh. The comment and reaction seem rather benign. Consequently, the potential humor in this situation was in fact humor.

Humor in this example can provide many benefits. According to the work of Jessica Mesmer-Magnus and her colleagues, use of humor by leaders is associated with enhanced work performance, satisfaction with the leader and workgroup cohesion. In addition, humor can also be used to defuse tense discussions and situations.

Now, take a look at a different leadership team as it discusses items of business. In this meeting, a vice president makes a sarcastic comment about another executive in the room. This verbal poke does get a laugh from some on the team. As you sit through this meeting and subsequent ones with this team, you notice more of these sarcastic comments being made by members. When a team member reacts to these zingers in a less than positive way, one of the initiators quickly explains that he was just “having fun.”

Although these zinger exchanges can take place in a variety of situations, I have encountered them most often in leadership team meetings, especially in the early stages of building team momentum. As I paid more attention to the frequency with which the zingers occurred in the situations, it became apparent that the team members were not just having fun. The zingers were really jabs at each other that were done under the guise of fun. More specifically, the zingers were forms of passive aggression that the leadership team members used instead of recognizing and resolving a latent issue.

In this scenario, what seemed initially like benign humor revealed itself to be something else which has costs for the team. Nicholas Kuiper and others found that aggressive humor such as excessive sarcasm is used to denigrate people. It is executed without regard for the negative impact it has on the targeted team members. Ongoing use of aggressive humor targeted at the same people can alienate the individuals and seriously impair interpersonal relationships with them. This in turn will undermine any team momentum that has been established.

Having looked at the costs and benefits of humor, it is evident that there is nothing wrong with humor. It just needs to be used wisely by leadership team members. In order to facilitate this wise usage, consider these steps:

Assess your intent

Determine whether your objective truly is to have fun in a joking manner or something else

Keep an eye on the amount of sarcasm

Use the frequency of zingers as a signal that an issue needs to be addressed

Utilize candor as an ally

Address issues directly with team members to keep passive aggression in check

Point it at you

Self-deprecation can be a source of humor as well as a means to restore balance within the team


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Team Norway Meeting, Flickr)