Bauer Research Finds Workplace Humor Not a Laughing Matter

Published on June 4, 2018

Assistant Professor Tony Kong Examines Humor Expression in Leaders

Consider the traits people aim to project on a resume or in a job interview: Competence. Experience. Drive.

New research suggests another: Tells great jokes.

That fourth quality may not typically be cited as a traditional workplace skill, but having a sense of humor is a demonstrated leadership trait that is increasingly getting serious attention (nudge, nudge).

Bauer College’s Assistant Professor of Management Dejun “Tony” Kong is among leading academics whose published and ongoing research has suggested leaders who aren’t afraid to be amusing help boost their employees’ job performance, citizenship behaviors, creativity, organizational commitment, job satisfaction, and retention.

Assistant Professor Tony Kong

“As a leader, a lot of resources are not abundant. Increasing salaries and giving bonuses is not always an option, but humor is limitless, and it doesn’t cost anything,” Kong says. “Leader humor expression can be really helpful for encouraging motivated employees to go the extra mile and help the organization in general,” he says.

Kong is one of the authors of a paper recently published in a top journal, in which the authors tested previous assumptions about the reasons leader levity is beneficial. In surveying employees of a non-profit organization, as well as for-profit companies in the interior design, banking and health care industries, findings confirm that introducing occasional lightheartedness into the workplace helps improve the quality of work relationships and encourages employees to give more of themselves for the benefit of the company.

“We found that humor has a weaker effect on stress and burnout,” Kong says. “But there is much strong support for triggering positive emotions, and that can help people build good relationships that ultimately benefit the organization.”

Humor is particularly good when it comes to creating a helping and performance culture and a willingness to pitch in and help others for the good of the organization. Unfortunately, the mirth meter in most workplaces is set far too low, Kong says.

“There is a laughter drought at work. Working people only laugh an average of 15 times a day, and that is shocking. There are many reasons people don’t use humor at work. People may worry the humor will be misinterpreted. They want to make sure others know that they take their work seriously, and they don’t want to appear soft. Or, the work is too stressful and intense.”

And, of course, there are valid reasons to proceed with caution when merry-making at work, Kong says.

“We have to be very cautious with what kind of humor we use at work. Obviously, aggressive, racist or sexist humor is not okay. Sarcasm will probably cause stress.” Decisions about whom to be humorous with and in what settings can also be fraught with implications.

Still, humor has long had a place in successful pitches to investors and in sales and is worthy of being cultivated as part of a management skillset, Kong says. He has been mulling over an appropriate way to help students develop it within an academic setting.

“Sometimes, people are born to be humorous. Other people learn to be that way. But it’s a little tricky to implement. Who’s going to teach it? I guess it has to be someone naturally humorous,” Kong says.

Publication of “Leader Humor as an Interpersonal Resource: Integrating Three Theoretical Perspectives,” in the Academy of Management Journal, builds on Kong’s body of research that considers and encourages positive organizational behaviors.

“Since humor is so important and underused in work life, why not think about innovative ways to utilize it and enrich work life?”

By Julie Bonnin