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Funny Business? Bosses Should Tread Lightly With Humor

Funny Business? Bosses Should Tread Lightly With Humor
Credit: J Walters/Shutterstock

Bosses often like to joke around with their employees as a way to try to boost their spirits. However, how that humor is perceived doesn't depend on the jokes being told, but rather the relationship the two have, new research finds.

Bosses who use humor as a way to increase their employees' job happiness only get the outcome they're striving for when they have a quality relationship with their workers, according to a study recently published in the journal Group & Organization Management.

Typically, positive humor, which is inclusive and tasteful, is considered a good trait in leaders and negative humor, which is aggressive and offensive, is seen as a bad trait, said Christopher Robert, one of the study's authors and an associate professor at the University of Missouri.

"Both positive and negative humor use by leaders is positively related to their subordinates' job satisfaction when the relationship between the leader and subordinates is good," Robert said in a statement. "However, when the leader-subordinate relationship is bad, both negative and positive types of humor are associated with lower job satisfaction — in other words, for leaders, sometimes good humor has bad effects and bad humor has good effects on subordinates."

For the study, researchers developed two sets of matched questionnaires, one for leaders and one for their subordinates. Researchers analyzed responses from about 70 leaders and their 241 subordinates in 54 organizations. [Bosses or Workers? Whose Behavior Is Worse? ]

"The findings suggest that if leaders wish to integrate humor into their interactions with subordinates, they should first assess whether or not their subordinates are likely to interpret their humorous overtures positively," Robert said. "If a good relationship between the leader and the subordinate exists, then humor – be it positive or negative in tone – will only help to maintain the good relationship."

Based on the study, the researchers believe that instead of using humor to try and build relationships with their employees, that they should work to build bonds other ways, such as such as through clear communication, fair treatment and providing useful feedback.

"Humor then can be used to maintain those strong relationships," Robert said.

Although humor with a negative tone can work to boost job satisfaction in relationships, it doesn't mean bosses shouldn't be careful with the jokes they tell. Robert said jokes with racial or sexual stereotypes may not be accepted positively in any case, and large amounts of negative or aggressive humor can also be seen as unacceptable.

The study was co-authored by Timothy Dunne, an assistant professor of management at Middle Tennessee State University, and Joyce Iun, of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.