While past studies show humor to be an effective tool for leaders to build relationships with their followers, these studies are based on concepts of Western cultures. Cultural differences between East and West, however, explain why humor is not always advised for leaders operating in an Eastern cultural context.
Past studies have demonstrated the power of humor in strengthening relationships between leaders and followers. In the early stages of these relationships, the power position of leaders requires them be the ones to reach out to followers. Humor is an effective strategy for making these early connections.
Humor positively impacts early-stage relationships in three ways. First, it reduces the uncertainty that followers may have about the behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes of their leader. Uncertainty in relationships is reduced through communication and information sharing. Self-disclosure by leaders—in which leaders open up and reveal personal information—is one type of communication that is particularly powerful in reducing uncertainty. Followers feel that they are beginning to ‘know’ these leaders. Humor is one of the acceptable ways for leaders to disclose something about themselves in a workplace setting.
Second, humor generates positive emotions as it shows a leader who is making an effort to strengthen his or her relationship with followers. It also shows a leader who wants to break down to some extent the hierarchical barriers between leader and follower.
Third, humor helps followers to ‘identify’ with their leaders—that is, sharing a laugh increases the feeling in followers that they share some commonalities (e.g., values) with the leader.
While the results of these studies apply to Western cultures, a study focusing on the role of leadership humor in Eastern cultures reveals a significantly different dynamic. In the early stages of leader-follower relationships in the East, the authors of the study argue, the use of humor will backfire—increasing uncertainty, generating negative emotions, and reducing the likelihood that followers can identify with their leaders.
The reason for these different results is cultural, notably in terms of power distance (PD) and individualism vs. collectivism. Power distance refers to expectations of the difference of power between leaders and followers. Western cultures are typically low power distance cultures—that is, followers are not expected to be significantly less powerful and more subservient to leaders. Western leaders are thus motivated to use humor to reduce power distance since doing so strengthens the relationship.
Eastern cultures are high power distance cultures: both leaders and followers expect some distance between them in terms of power. Combined with the importance of saving ‘face’, which could be lost by failed humor attempts, leaders in Eastern cultures are not motivated to introduce humor—self-deprecating or otherwise—in the relationship.
In addition, leaders in Eastern cultures are expected to be serious and distant. Followers expect leaders to display authority, morality, and benevolence. Thus, a leader who makes jokes would only increase rather than decrease the uncertainty of followers about the leader’s personality and future behaviors.
In Eastern cultures, humor is also ineffective generating positive emotions, partly as a result of lower individualistic (IND) and higher collectivist attitudes. Positive emotions generated by humor are self-focused and individualistic. In Eastern cultures, people seek happiness through relational and shared experiences with others. Leaders who can strengthen feelings of belonging and harmony are more likely to generate positive emotions.
Finally, higher PD and lower IND expectations also explain why humor does not increase a follower’s identification with the leader. Followers are not expecting to search for elements that make them feel more ‘’equal’ to a leader. Their identification with the leader is derived from being part of a harmonious group of followers.
While humor is ineffective in early-stage relationships with followers, the situation changes over time. The more long-term the relationship, the more effective leadership humor becomes in the East. This reversal is due to the connection in Eastern cultures between time and informality. That is, relationships are expected to become more and more informal with time—the reason socializing events among work colleagues, for example, are encouraged. With this growing informality, uncertainty reduction is no longer needed and rather than being inappropriate, humor is now considered a sign that the relationship has strengthened and developed. In the informality of late-stage relationships, humor now functions effectively to increase a follower’s identification with the leader.
Global leaders are often required to work and lead in different cultures. Cross-cultural leadership is challenging because of the different and often conflicting facets of different cultures. This study reveals just how nuanced and less-than-evident cultural differences can be. Leadership humor in East Asia is not proscribed by these scholars. They simply caution that timing is everything—that is, the maturity of the relationship decides whether humor is effective or counter-productive.
Raising awareness of the role humor plays in different cultures, this study offers key insights that can be used in the development of managers for global assignments.
Leader Humour Effectiveness—The Divergent Dynamics of Leader Humour over Time in East Asia and North America. Inju Yang, Sven Horak, Shu-Chenge Steve Chi. Thunderbird International Business Review (May/June 2021).
Further Relevant Resources:
Emilio Castilla’s profile at MIT Sloan School of Management
MIT Sloan School of Management Executive Education profile at IEDP
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