26 September 2023

Funny business: Why a joke-loving boss can be no laughing matter

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Chuck Finder* says new research suggests a boss who jokes around in the workplace can create a climate ripe for employees who break the rules.

Having a boss who jokes around in the workplace can be a mixed blessing, according to two new papers examining the benefits of corporate leaders having a sense of humour.

You might expect that a boss who cracks jokes is healthy for the workplace, while a boss who blows his or her stack isn’t.

As it turns out, the opposite might be true — depending on the circumstances.

Yes, humour can motivate and engage employees; plenty of research say so.

But researchers have discovered that, in some cases, the boss’s humour can create a climate ripe for employees who break the rules.

On the other side of the coin, the second research paper examines what happens after a boss blows up in front of subordinates.

The short answer: most try to make nice later on.

“The leaders often use a more indirect way of expressing their apology,” says Zhenyu Liao, a postdoctoral research associate in organisational behaviour at Washington University in St Louis.

Rule breakers

In their paper, Liao and colleagues pose a question: “What do dinosaurs and decent lawyers have in common?”

It’s the only joke they offer in their paper, which appears in the Academy of Management Journal.

The punchline: “They’re both extinct.”

The joke illustrates “benign violation theory,” a psychological framework for humour the researchers applied to the workplace.

As the theory goes, certain types of humour require a “violation of norms” (Ha! All good lawyers are dead!).

Second, the violation must be “benign” (Nobody really thinks all good lawyers are dead).

Third, the violation and its “benign nature” occur together.

But a leader who issues a steady drumbeat of “benign violations” through humour can inadvertently communicate to subordinates that other violations are acceptable — swiping office supplies, insulting coworkers, even violating nondisclosure agreements or fudging on financial reports.

“You’re sending out signals implicitly telling your employees it’s OK to violate some norms,” Liao says.

What’s worse: bosses who use “aggressive humour” — put-downs, insults, and sarcasm — exacerbate the bad and undermine the benefits of office humour.

Why bad bosses shouldn’t try to be funny

“We’re not trying to say leaders should not engage in humour,” Liao says.

“They should be more mindful about their humour.”

“Your role, your status — all of your actions — will send out very strong signals about what behaviours are acceptable.”

How bosses ‘cleanse’ their guilt

Liao’s research into the results of a boss’s angry outbursts grew from his own experience with bosses who embarrassed or belittled him publicly, only to privately circle back as a more nurturing workplace partner.

The paper, which will appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology, also relied on the results of a pair of surveys reaching a total of 99 leaders and 140 subordinates.

Over time, workers gauged their experience either receiving or doling out abusive behaviour — and what behaviour followed the abuse.

The authors concluded that “morally attentive” leaders who have high “moral courage” try to “cleanse” their guilt by later offering offended subordinates interesting work assignments, career-building advice, more personal attention, or more work resources.

“When you realise you are engaging in this kind of behaviour, maybe you realise you shouldn’t,” Liao says.

“You may feel like you want to engage in some sort of cleansing behaviour.”

How abusive bosses make themselves miserable

He notes that this isn’t about a boss’s leadership style.

Instead, it’s about a specific type of behaviour on a particular day.

Maybe the boss was just having a bad day.

“We highlight that seemingly incompatible leadership behaviours can exist within the same leaders, shedding light on paradoxical leadership patterns,” the researchers write.

* Chuck Finder is a communications/media professional. He tweets at @cfinder.

This article first appeared at www.futurity.org.

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