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Leaders Be Aware: Your Humor Influences Employees

Posted by Lisa Cunningham | May 17, 2018 | Comments (3)

What leaders say and do in the workplace can affect their subordinates. For example, humor in the workplace can be a way to motivate and engage employees, but a boss’ humor could also create a climate of rule breaking, according to research from the University of Washington in St. Louis.

Jokes that fit the “benign violation theory” can inadvertently communicate to employees that other violations—such as stealing office supplies, insulting peers and exaggerating on reports—are acceptable.

In their paper, which appeared in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers offered the following joke to illustrate benign violation theory: “What do dinosaurs and decent lawyers have in common? They’re both extinct.”

Certain types of humor create a “violation of norms,” according to the theory. The violation in this case is that all good lawyers are dead. The violation must be benign, which is true in this joke as no one really thinks that all good lawyers are dead. Finally, the theory requires that the violation and its benign nature occur together.

“You’re sending out signals implicitly telling your employees it’s OK to violate some norms,” says Zhenyu Liao, a postdoctoral research associate in organizational behavior at the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School. “We’re not trying to say leaders should not engage in humor. 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.”

Researchers drew their conclusions from a series of surveys on more than 200 MBA students in China and 200 workers—mostly in banking, sales, and engineering—in the United States.

In a separate paper, which will appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Liao and colleagues explored what happens when leaders have angry outbursts. Over a period, they surveyed 99 leaders and 140 subordinates to gauge their experience either receiving or exhibiting abusive behavior and what behavior followed the abuse.

Researchers concluded that “morally attentive” leaders with “high moral courage” try to later cleanse their guilt by 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.”

This type of behavior isn’t so much rooted in leadership style as it is in a day’s events, according to Liao. The boss could just be having a bad day. If bosses are aware and mindful of their behavior with subordinates, they may be better able to avoid angry outbursts and therefore not need to take cleansing actions.

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Lisa Cunningham

Lisa Cunningham is a freelance writer and social media consultant. She holds a master’s degree in professional writing with a focus on web content development from Chatham University and a bachelor’s degree in English writing and communication from the University of Pittsburgh.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

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Comments (3)

  1. cliffordmpai@gmail.com says:

    Well said Lisa. Humor is a double edged sword and one has to use it based on a specific situation having evaluated ones environment. It has its advantages and disadvantages. That said, humor must be aptly used to enhance the personal and professional environment.

    • Lisa Cunningham says:

      That is so true! Humor definitely can encourage positive behavior as well as negative. Thank you for sharing your insights.

      Best regards,


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