Why even inoffensive jokes by the boss can be problematic

Image: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay
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There’s a reason almost every presentation or keynote address begins with a joke. Humor breaks up tedium, eases tension, and helps foster team spirit—and studies indicate funny leaders create trust and improve performance among their employees.

New research, however, suggests that humor can also have a corrosive quality in the workplace, and that when managers tell jokes, even ones that seem inoffensive, it can serve to undermine the organization.

When leaders tell jokes that poke fun of the status quo or violate expected behavior, even mildly, they are sending signals that it’s OK to cross boundaries. That can lead to a greater acceptance of rule-breaking among their employees, according to a recent paper published in the Academy of Management Journal.

The researchers, led by Kai Chi Yam of National University of Singapore and Michael Christian of the University of North Carolina, rely on a concept called “benign violation theory,” which holds that humor can follow when social norms are violated, and when it’s perceived as non threatening. In the paper, they use the following joke as an example: “What do dinosaurs and decent lawyers have in common? They are both extinct.” The joke, while not hysterical, works because it rests on the idea of lawyers dying off, which represents a violation of norms, but since it’s not to be taken literally, it’s inoffensive.

Workplaces are bound by rules and expected behaviors, and employees usually take their cues about what is and what is not permissible from their managers. When leaders make jokes that subvert social norms, “a meaningful message is conveyed about the values of the organization: behaving counter-normatively ‘is the way things are done,’” the researchers write.

The researchers tested their theory with 215 part-time MBA students at a university in China. The students, who all had full-time jobs in sectors like banking and manufacturing, were asked to evaluate their managers’ sense of humor, the acceptability of rule-breaking in their organizations, and their own willingness to break rules. They found a correlation between a manager’s propensity for humor and an employee’s appetite for rule breaking.

The researchers also probed whether there were positive benefits to humorous bosses, and whether the type of humor used by a boss affected workers differently. In another survey, this time of 700 US-based workers, they found that when managers use humor, it can promote rule-breaking but it can also improve their interactions with employees. Workers who are comfortable with their managers are more engaged workers, improving productivity.

The exception, however, was when managers used aggressive humor, like sarcasm or put-downs, which can have the opposite effect.
“Humorous leaders who tend to use aggressive humor were most likely to promote follower deviance and least likely to encourage follower work engagement,” the authors of the study note.

Ultimately, the researchers conclude, manager humor brings tradeoffs. There’s an increased appetite for rule-breaking (or more benign forms of “deviance”) on the one hand, and improved morale and engagement on the other. But when it comes to insulting jokes, there’s no tradeoff—it’s just a bad idea.