University of Minnesota Duluth block M and wordmark

Teaching Leadership

More UMD News Articles


Jim Lyttle: The Serious Business of Humor


UMD Assistant Professor Jim Lyttle  
Assistant Professor Jim Lyttle

April is National Humor Month, but for Assistant Professor Jim Lyttle in the Department of Management Studies, humor is a year-long concern.

He teaches the class Organizational Behavior and Management at the Labovitz School of Business and Economics. There he introduces students to organizations, management processes, and understanding human behavior at work. While he covers the effects of external environment, organizational structure, job design, teams, and leadership, Lyttle also addresses one of his favorite topics: humor in business.

Simply put, humor in the workplace is a tricky thing. While it can help people cope in times of stress or create cohesiveness among team members, it can also distract. “Humor can confuse. It needs to be carefully done,” Lyttle said. “Managers may think that they are funny and that humor is working, but it’s really just gumming things up,” he said. Any episode of "The Office" can put this into painful perspective.

Lyttle tries to instill in his students an understanding of the effective and responsible use of humor as they work to become leaders in business. “One can use humor to encourage critical thinking, but if you make fun of ideas, people shut down.”

Used to excess or at the wrong moments, humor can also undermine a manager’s authority. “We need to be careful to use just enough humor, and use it sensibly, in order to maximize the likelihood that it will work effectively without eroding credibility,” he said. “Good leaders are those individuals who people want to follow and emulate.”

He is quick to point out that the ethics of humor shouldn’t be ignored. Culture, gender, age, etc., all come into play in regards to whether certain humor is appropriate in an office or anywhere. “Humor can be lost in translation,” Lyttle cautions. “Sensitivity is important in increasingly diverse workplaces.”

He uses humor in his classes, but with a keen eye. Studies have shown that a professor’s likeability goes up with the use of humor in classroom, but “on how smart they are, the humorless professor always scores higher,” he said. Funny, huh?

About Jim Lyttle
Before coming to UMD, Lyttle taught at Penn State and Long Island University. He has a bachelor's degree with double majors in economics and philosophy from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada; an MBA based exclusively on the Harvard case method from the Ivey Business School at Western University, in London, Canada; and a doctorate in organization studies from the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, Canada. He was born in North Bay, Canada.

He has written and lectured extensively on the topic of humor in the workplace, and numerous authors have referenced his work. To read some of his research, visit his website.

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, Mar. 2014


News Features | News Releases
UMD News Features editor, Cheryl Reitan,

Did you find what you were looking for? YES NO

Choose appearance:
[ Desktop | Mobile friendly ]