Bosses who use humour in the workplace could encourage employees to engage in deviant behaviour, according to a new study released by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

A leader’s expression of humour may signal an acceptance of doing things that go against conventional behaviour at work. These include being chronically absent from work, ignoring a manager’s instructions, or even drinking alcohol on the job, says the study.

Led by Assistant Professor Sam Yam from NUS Business School’s Department of Management and Organisation, the study surveyed more than 400 full-time employees from companies in China and the United States. Employees were to report how humorous their leaders are in the workplace, followed by describing their relationships with their leaders and their perceptions of acceptable misdemeanours.

The study concluded that leaders can continue to express humour, but they need to minimise the use of “aggressive humour”, such as teasing of staff members. This riskier form of humour is more likely to pave the way for employees to behave badly, and least likely to build a sense of work engagement on their teams.

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However, the study added that humour from leaders is a “mixed blessing” and remains an important and effective organisational tool for bosses to successfully motivate their teams.

On the one hand, humour may seemingly improve leader-staff exchanges. This leads to better work engagement among employees, increasing productivity. On the other hand, leader humour may lead employees to have increased false perceptions of the acceptability of norm violation at work, which in turn lead to their deviant behaviours.

Thus, leaders must be mindful of their status as role models as their positions and actions serve as action cues for their employees, resulting in both positive and negative consequences.

“Managers should be careful how they portray themselves to their teams – increasing self-monitoring skills and becoming more aware of what types of humour are appropriate in different situations. A joke may start out as ‘just a joke’ but for managers in particular, its impact can have far-reaching consequences,” says Asst Prof Yam.

He added that employees observe and interpret what a leader does or says, and adjust their own behaviour accordingly. Therefore, it is very important for leaders to understand the right and wrong ways to use humour in the workplace, so the organisation as a whole benefits.

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This article was first published in Human Resources Online Bulletin and is reproduced with permission. Original article can be found at

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