A survey reveals that bosses who make fun of their subordinates or use aggressive humour are taken less seriously by the team and may encourage disobedience.
Joking with subordinates can be a costly mistake. According to a survey by NUS Business School, Singapore, when bosses joke with their team members, they unintentionally promote negative behaviour among the juniors.
The study, led by Assistant Professor Sam Yam from the Department of Management & Organisation, reveals that a leader’s expression of humour is often perceived as acceptability of misdemeanours within the workplace. For instance, it allows subordinates to take chances by being chronically absent from work, ignoring a manager’s instructions, sharing confidential information, falsifying financial claims, or drinking alcohol on the job.
The consequences are even worse when the humour has a negative connotation. For instance, if the boss makes fun of a junior’s weakness or teases a staff member, it is more likely to pave the way for employees to behave badly, and least likely to build a sense of work engagement amongst the teams.
“If the boss makes fun of a junior’s weakness or teases a staff member, it is more likely to pave the way for employees to behave badly, and least likely to build a sense of work engagement amongst the teams.”
Prof. Yam and his team collected data from over 400 full-time employees from companies in China and the United States, through two three-wave field studies, with an interval of two weeks between them.
The employees were first surveyed to report how humorous their leaders were in the workplace, and then describe their relationships with their leaders as well as their perceptions of acceptable misdemeanours. The final survey measured participants’ self-reported work engagement and behaviours.
The study indicates that leaders can continue to express humour, but need to minimise the usage of ‘aggressive humour’ as it will harm their relationship with employees and elicit more deviant behaviours from team members.
It has always been established that humour at the leadership level is a mixed blessing. It improves the way team members view their social relationship with their leaders, that is, leader–member exchanges. This leads to better work engagement among employees, resulting in employees becoming more attached to their jobs, more hard working, more enthusiastic and more productive.
These results reinforce that leaders must be mindful of their status as role models, as their positions and actions serve as action cues for their employees, resulting in both positive and negative consequences.
“Managers should be careful how they portray themselves to their teams—increasing self-monitoring skills and becoming more aware of what types of humour are appropriate in different situations. A joke may start out as ‘just a joke’ but for managers in particular, its impact can have far-reaching consequences,” says Prof. Yam.
“Employees will observe and interpret what a leader does or says, and adjust their own behaviour accordingly. Therefore, it is very important for leaders to understand the right and wrong ways to use humour in the workplace, so that the organisation as a whole benefits,” Prof. Yam concluded.