Elnur/Shutterstock.com

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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.