Humour Can Backfire in the Workplace. Here’s Why

By the SMU Social Media Team

Humour and its role in the workplace is a topic that is seldom discussed in Singapore. If anything, most would assume that humour would have a positive impact in the office when it comes to bonding with fellow employees or superiors—but the opposite may in fact be true.

Jared Nai, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources for the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University (SMU), discovered through his research that a leader’s strong sense of humour could negatively disrupt an organisation.

“I’ve always been fond of telling jokes and making people laugh,” explains Asst Prof Nai, who published the paper, The Mixed Blessing of Leader Sense of Humour: Examining Costs and Benefits, together with co-author Assistant Professor Sam Yam from the National University of Singapore.

“However, I’m also wary about crossing the line with inappropriate jokes. Seeing how some folks tend to adopt a more open leadership style with lots of humour, and how others prefer to be more serious and professional, I wondered what kind of impact they would have on followers.”


Humour as a weapon in the workplace

In his study, Asst Prof Nai discovered that, unfortunately, some individuals find unity in demeaning others and tend to adopt an aggressive sense of humour against a specific target in the workplace.

“Aggressive humour typically comes at the expense of someone, where a target is being put down or embarrassed in front of others perhaps for a mistake they made,” he explains.

This can lead to unhealthy, or even toxic cycles of workplace bullying as employees find laughter in belittling another individual instead of engaging in non-aggressive humour.


Laughter may not be the best medicine

Asst Prof Nai also emphasises the importance of recognising signs of negative workplace humour, and its consequences. One of the lasting impacts of negative workplace humour is a lack of motivation and willingness to work. The more negative the workplace humour, the more we would expect to see a lack of effort and concentration by the employees

Even if a leader does not couch his bullying attitude in humour, the frequent use of humour in daily professional interactions may “signal that it is fine to goof around and break norms,” says Asst Prof Nai.

He adds: “Leader sense of humour, as we found in our research, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can signal that a leader is willing to be informal with subordinates, and hence improve their working relationships. On the other, it also signals that norm violations are acceptable, which might lead employees to break rules.”


When humour morphs into harassment

Asst Prof Nai cautions that if left unchecked, inappropriate or offensive sense of humour could eventually slow down any progress we have made in shifting social attitudes and addressing harassment in the workplace with the recent #metoo movement.

“Research have shown that exposure to racist or sexist jokes actually increased tolerance towards the enactment of sexism or racism, as these behaviours seem to be normalised by everyone having a good laugh over it,” adds Asst Prof Nai.

Instead, a superior in a corporation could engage in non-aggressive humour, which involves “jokes or behaviour that does not come at other’s expense, where everybody can have a good laugh and no one is embarrassed.”

Leaders ought to raise their level of self-awareness and differentiate between various facets of humour as not all jokes are the same. When in doubt, Asst Prof Nai suggests implementing formal rules about appropriate behaviour at work. Racist and sexist jokes are out; and practices can be put in place to ensure that employees are able to provide feedback in confidence whenever they feel that their leaders or co-workers are behaving inappropriately.

When used appropriately, workplace humour can be a great source of motivation and a tool for building a friendly, welcoming corporate environment. The responsibility falls on the organisational leader to set the boundaries of humour and ultimately ensure that workplace humour is used in a positive way.