How to Tell a Joke to your Staff

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“When people say to me: would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss? My answer’s always the same, to me, they're not mutually exclusive.”

- David Brent

“There is no such thing as an appropriate joke. That's why it's a joke.”

- Michael Scott

  • New study by Prof. Kim explores factors that affect benefits of supervisor humour

Humour can be a valuable management tool. In the workplace television comedy The Office, the boss character (David Brent in the UK version and Michael Scott in the US) believes that his sense of humour is a key to his management ability. The reality, however, is quite different. In fact, these characters help illustrate some of the findings of a new research study co-authored by CEIBS Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management Tae-Yeol Kim which show that supervisor humour does not always produce good results.

Professor Kim and his co-authors surveyed supervisor/employee pairs at 14 large organizations in South Korea across several sectors, including IT, electronics, chemicals, manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals. The supervisors reported on the job performance of their subordinates, while staff was asked questions to assess their immediate supervisor's humour style, the trust and social distance between them, and their psychological well-being. The researchers found that humour style, social distance, and trust level all factored into whether the boss' jokes affected job performance and psychological well-being.

Academics have defined four styles of humour: self-enhancing (constantly noticing the funny side of situations) affiliative (telling funny stories, jokes and using witty banter to amuse others), aggressive (sarcasm, teasing, ridicule, derision and putting others down – frequently employed by the boss characters in The Office), and self-defeating (ridiculing oneself to gain the approval of others). The results of the study show that regardless of what style of humour a boss uses employees must trust their supervisor for it to be effective.

Bosses who can frequently manage to find the humour in a situation (self-enhancing) tend to have subordinates with good job performance and psychological well-being. Witty bosses who tell funny stories (affiliative humour) tend to have a positive effect on the psychological well-being of their staff, but their sense of humour has no impact on job performance. The David Brents and Michael Scotts have a negative effect on the psychological well-being of their staff and there is a greater social distance between them. However aggressive humour has no impact on job performance. Self-defeating humour was not incorporated into the study because it can have equally positive and negative effects on employee outcomes which cancel each other out.

The results of the study appear in the paper titled Supervisor Humor and Employee Outcomes: The Role of Social Distance and Affective Trust in Supervisor” which has been published by the Journal of Business Psychology. In addition to Prof. Kim, the co-authors are Deog-Ro Lee of Seowon University and Noel Yuen Shan Wong of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Read the paper here.

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