Conventional wisdom says leaders should avoid negative humor, though actual support for that belief is scarce and ambiguous. Common sense, as well as past research, would have us believe that the use of positive humor by leaders should result in happier employees who are satisfied with their jobs.

New research finds that it all depends on the quality of the relationship between leader and subordinates—not the positive or negative tone of the leader’s humor.

“…for leaders, sometimes good humor has bad effects and bad humor has good effects on subordinates”

“Generally, people think that positive humor, which is inclusive, affiliative, and tasteful, is good in leadership, and negative humor, which is aggressive and offensive, is bad,” says Christopher Robert, associate professor in the management department of the University of Missouri’s Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business.

“In our study, we found the effects of humor depend on the relationship between leaders and subordinates. Specifically, 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.

“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.”

"Michael Scott" from "The Office"

To test their theory, Robert and colleagues 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.

“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 says. “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.”

Robert also suggests that these results have implications for leaders’ strategic use of humor.

“Instead of using humor to build relationships, leaders should work to build strong relationships through other means such as through clear communication, fair treatment, and providing clear and useful feedback. Humor then can be used to maintain those strong relationships.”

Robert cautions that a high-quality leader-subordinate relationship doesn’t necessarily give leaders free reign to use any type of humor in any context. Jokes that leverage racial or sexual stereotypes may not be accepted positively by subordinates in all cases, and large amounts of negative or aggressive humor might be unacceptable Robert says.

Robert, Timothy Dunne, an assistant professor of management at Middle Tennessee State University, and Joyce Iun of the Chinese University of Hong Kong report their findings in the journal Group & Organization Management.

This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Jeff Sossamon-University of Missouri
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