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Following his successful bid to buy Twitter, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, took to the platform to joke about his next conquest. “Then I’ll buy Coke to put the cocaine back in,” Musk joked, a reference to the soda company’s original recipe. The prank not only garnered considerable attention from Musk, but has since inspired others to take to social media and pitch other companies that he could buy and “improve.”
Watching famous CEOs like Musk harness their humor effectively can be amusing. It may also have tempted him to try his own sense of humor. After all, using humor in your leadership style seems to be to your advantage.
When done effectively, humor can be a powerful tool that can greatly enhance your respect, prominence, and prestige—that is, your status—as a leader. You can also improve the status of your followers and motivate them to use their newfound influence to advocate for improvements in the organization. But to reap the benefits of humor, you need to be aware of the costs. Here are some things to keep in mind when considering whether or not to use humor at work:
Hone your skills
Humor can serve as a good sign of one’s intelligence and ability. Studies demonstrate that using humor when interacting with others can make you appear more competent, allow you to achieve higher status, and be seen as a leader. But there is a problem: your attempt at humor must be humorous.
Think of a time when you saw someone make a failed attempt at humor. Not only did it elicit second-hand shaming, it probably saw them visibly regress, becoming less poised and self-assured. How did it affect your impressions of them? Did you perceive them as somewhat less competent for not having delivered the intended message effectively?
While successful attempts at humor can improve your perceived competence and status, unsuccessful attempts at humor can lower it. This is not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t try your hand at humor when the opportunity arises. Rather, the point is that, like other leadership skills, successful attempts at humor are an art that must be perfected. Understanding the potential risks involved in using humor at work can help you make a more calculated decision about whether to tell that joke you’ve been wanting to tell.
Related: How to be funny in the workplace
One of the reasons humor can lower your status is because the joke doesn’t push the boundaries far enough and therefore doesn’t register as attempted humor. However, another reason could be that the joke pushes the boundaries of appropriateness too far and offends those it purports to follow. Usual suspects include sarcasm, teasing, and insensitivity, largely considered aggressive humor styles. While there may be a time and a place for these edgier forms of comedy, the workplace isn’t one of them.
Research suggests that using aggressive humor at work can encourage subordinates to flout the rules, undermining their influence. And just like pranks that simply backfire, inappropriate pranks can affect impressions of competence, further undermining your status and influence. The lesson is that when it comes to the work environment, reaping the benefits of humor requires knowing when your joke pushes the envelope enough to be funny without crossing the line.
Related: Why Telling Jokes At Work Makes You Appear More Confident
Your use of humor also affects the state of others.
Therefore, using humor can increase or decrease your status and influence at work. But joking around with your subordinates can also affect their status and influence?
Interested in this question, my colleagues and I recently conducted a series of studies to shed some light on the subject. We found that when leaders used a positive and playful style of humor, their subordinates became more active, confident, and engaged at work, ultimately improving their status in the workplace. In turn, they used their increased influence to advocate for changes that could improve the work unit.
But not all styles of humor led to such positive results. Once again, aggressive forms of humor seem to act as status suppressors. Specifically, we further found that when leaders’ humor involved sarcasm, teasing, or teasing, their subordinates tended to withdraw from the work environment, becoming less confident and more inhibited; tendencies that ultimately suppressed their status in the workplace. In turn, they became less involved in their work and less likely to voice their suggestions.
So remember that your humor not only affects your own influence as a leader, it also affects the people you are charged with leading. With that in mind, maybe I’ll leave the cocaine jokes to Elon Musk.