Why leaders shouldn’t make aggressive jokes

by HRD08 May 2017
Employees’ deviant behaviours could be the result of their leader’s jokes, according to a study by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

Using humour in the workplace can be a mixed blessing for leaders, with unintended negative behaviour among followers, said NUS. A perceived higher acceptance of doing something that goes against generally conventional behaviours can lead to an increase in negative behaviour in the workplace.

“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 the organisation as a whole benefits,” said NUS assistant professor Sam Yam, who headed the study.

Examples of bad behaviours include being chronically absent from work, ignoring a manager’s instructions, sharing confidential information, falsifying financial claims, or drinking alcohol on the job.

“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,” said Yam.

The study emphasized the importance of setting the right tone for the workplace. It said an important factor is the degree to which leaders used “aggressive humour”, such as teasing of staff members.
However, evidence also showed that humour “is an important and effective organisational tool for bosses to successfully motivate their teams to achieve greater performance.”

It advised leaders to minimise aggressive humour. “On the one hand, humour is seen to improve how team members view their social relationship with their leaders – leader-member exchanges… On the other hand, leader humour can lead employees to have increased perceptions of the acceptability of norm violation at work, which in turn lead to more employee deviant behaviours.”


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