How funny bosses can encourage deviant rule breakers

Funny bosses encourage us to let our guard down, but a new study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that their jokes can inadvertently encourage us to let our guard down too much, communicating that the workplace is an upside-down funhouse where rules no longer apply.

The boss who moonlights at work as a comedian is a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, funny bosses can make the everyday grind more enjoyable by encouraging us to bring our whole personalities to the office. As the study notes, “A leader’s sense of humor will ensure employees feel safe to be their true self, which in turn enables them to fully invest their personal energy in their work roles.”

But on the other hand, when your boss is not taking work seriously, you start to not take it too seriously too. At worst, their jokes can set the precedent that norm violations are socially acceptable in work interactions.

To test the effect of humor in the workplace, the researchers recruited 200 employees to report on the type of humor their bosses used and what kind of deviant behavior they were involved in at work. The study ultimately found that employees with funny bosses had a more interpersonal rapport with their boss, which in turn, increased their work engagement. But humor, in general, was also likely to increase follower deviance.

Aggressive humor can signal that ‘respect and civility’ are not valued

Under a funny boss, employees became more likely to make fun of someone at work, snipe rude comments, steal office supplies and show up to work late. But there was one kind of funny boss that was most likely to amplify the effects of deviant behavior — the aggressively funny boss. Their jokes land more like punches, sometimes at the expense of others. The sarcastic teasing has a mean undercurrent running through it.

The study uses the example of an offhand comment like “John, you seem so busy” to sarcastically send “a message that John is not putting up enough effort.” But when this kind of humor becomes the norm, it signals that mutual respect and civility is not important, the study found.

Ultimately, leadership sets the tone of how employees should conduct themselves at work. It’s a lesson that bosses need to be mindful of what kind of jokes they use at work.

“We’re not trying to say leaders should not engage in humor,” Zhenyu Liao, one of the study’s authors, said. “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.”