There are plenty of “how to be an effective leader” articles out there that include “have a sense of humor” at the top of the list, and there’s research to back up the idea that a well-respected leader’s sense of humor can increase employee engagement and job satisfaction. But a recent Quartz piece is putting fun bosses on notice: According to staff reporter Oliver Staley, seemingly inoffensive jokes by managers can have a “corrosive quality in the workplace” and “serve to undermine the organization.”
Staley is drawing on a paper published earlier this year in the Academy of Management Journal that suggests that a leader’s sense of humor “often conveys counter-normative social information in organizations.” In other words, a manager joking around can indicate that subverting desirable social norms in the workplace is not only accepted but encouraged.
The paper draws on a concept of humor called “benign violation theory” that holds that most of what we find funny can be boiled down to a few central tenets. First, a joke must be a violation of a norm—social, moral, or physical. Second, the violation has to be benign or nonthreatening. Third, the benignity and violation have to be simultaneously interpreted; otherwise, the joke will fall flat. An example that both Staley and the paper’s author cite is the admittedly terrible joke, “What do dinosaurs and decent lawyers have in common? They are both extinct.” The joke is theoretically funny because the idea of lawyers dying off is a violation of expected norms and also isn’t meant to be taken literally. But according to the paper’s researchers, there’s a correlation between a manager’s norm-violating jokes—especially if they’re aggressive or sarcastic—and an employee’s engagement and propensity to violate norms in the workplace.
What’s interesting about all this, to my mind, is that while the lawyer joke definitely ranks pretty low on the totem pole of offensive humor, it’s not as inoffensive as Staley suggests. A whole group of people is either being wished gone or having their morals called into question. The norm being violated here is one of both professional and personal respect, and while lawyers are by no means a marginalized class, it does make sense that hearing your boss suggest that both underpaid/overworked public defenders and say, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, are collectively indecent would set a negative tone for a work environment. There’s also research that supports the idea that being exposed to sexist humor directed at women can create a perceived environment of tolerance for sexism. You’re more likely to see social rules as flexible when you see your boss continually breaking them; and while humor can undoubtedly create a rapport in the office, a rapport that relies on someone else being a punchline is toxic.
Of course, harmful norms should be challenged and subverted in a workplace, and there’s a wide world of counter-normative humor that doesn’t rely on denigrating an entire group of people—jokes that poke fun at nonsensical hierarchies or jokes that are self-deprecating should be encouraged. Leveraging benign violations for levity isn’t a bad thing, but the lowest common denominator of humor tends to lean toward painting whole groups of people with broad strokes. Managers should avoid that and aim to make themselves more human with their jokes, rather than making others outside, and certainly inside, the company seem less human. The takeaway from this study shouldn’t be for managers to just stop telling even “inoffensive” jokes at work. It should be that punching down or using someone else as a gag line should be avoided across the board.