Jokey Bosses Can Encourage Rule Breakers

"Bosses who crack jokes in the office may be opening the door to the idea that it's okay to violate rules in the workplace.

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

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, humor can motivate and engage employees; plenty of research say so. But researchers have discovered that, in some cases, the boss’s humor 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 organizational behavior at the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School.

Rule breakers

In their paper on boss humor in the workplace, 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 humor the researchers applied to the workplace.

As the theory goes, certain types of humor 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 humor 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 humor”—put-downs, insults, and sarcasm—exacerbate the bad and undermine the benefits of office humor.

The researchers drew the conclusions from a series of surveys, first on more than 200 MBA students in China, then on 200 US workers mostly in banking, sales, and engineering.

“We’re not trying to say leaders should not engage in humor,” Liao says. “They should be more mindful about their humor. Your role, your status—all of your actions—will send out very strong signals about what behaviors 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 a period of time, workers gauged their experience either receiving or doling out abusive behavior—and what behavior 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 realize you are engaging in this kind of behavior, maybe you realize you shouldn’t,” Liao says. “You may feel like you want to engage in some sort of cleansing behavior.”

He notes that this isn’t about a boss’s leadership style. Instead, it’s about a specific type of behavior on a particular day. Maybe the boss was just having a bad day.

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

Liao began his work on the Academy of Management Journal paper as a PhD student with lead author Kai Chi Yam at National University of Singapore. Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Wuhan University, and Singapore Management University also contributed to the paper. 

This article was originally published in Futurity. Edits have been made to this republication. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.