The use of leader humor in the East and West

When and how to use humor in East Asia and North America //

Research on humor generally tends to assume that the use of humor by a leader towards his or her subordinates has positive effects and is widely regarded as an indicator of the leader having likable characteristics. This is likely untrue for other places than the North American region. Despite the popularity of this assumption in North America, it is largely unknow whether those positive effects are universal, i.e. whether they hold true in other parts of the world. Since leaders are today more than ever before globally travelling leaders, working with people who draw on different ideals, tastes, social norm and value systems, there is a need to understand the effectiveness of leader humor better. Today, global leaders want to establish rapport and trust quickly.

“Contrary to the United States, in East Asia leader humor is not effective in early-phase leader–member interactions”

Research has paid less attention so far to aspects of the cultural context of leader humor, particularly in regard to time by exploring questions of when humor is appropriate and when it is not. With regard to the world’s largest economic region, we argue that leader humor is not so effective in East Asia because of different preferences in relation to communication style and divergent expectations and value sets during early-phase leader–member interactions. In that regard, the role of context is central. In East Asia the dominance of the formal context in the early stage of the relationship will make a leader’s humor less effective. On the other hand, however, the growing significance and role of the informal context in a mature relationship makes the leader’s humor more effective. Hence, we argue that leader humor may become equally if not more effective in the mature phase of leader–member interactions.

While cultural differences, including the usage of humor at work are much more apparent at the early stage of a relationship, our exploration uncovers areas that are important for effective cross-cultural communication training and the development of managers for global assignments.

More here:

Yang, I.; Horak, S. & Chi, S.-C. & (2020). Leader humor effectiveness – The divergent dynamics of leader humor over time in East Asia and North America. Thunderbird International Business Review, forthcoming.


Photo credit: “Aptenodytes patagonicus (king penguin)” is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Published by Sven Horak