Studies about humor in the workplace often focus on the relationship between leaders and team members, with an emphasis on the leaders’ behavior. That’s a logical approach, says Nancy Scott, director of leadership development programs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, but it is only one half of the story.
“I chose to focus on the team members or followers,” Scott says. “Work relationships involve more than just the leader, so I looked at how followers use humor. I wanted to know how that impacts the perceived quality of the relationship from both sides.”
Scott found that when followers use humor with leaders both parties tend to view the relationship more favorably.
“The notion of using not just your performance, but also your personality to build a good relationship is something that I think needs more research," Scott says.
Jonathan Harvey, executive director of the leadership division in graduate and executive education at Haslam, says Scott’s research makes unique contributions to its field.
“I believe this is one of the first, if not the first, study into follower humor impact,” Harvey says. “This is the start of work into an area that is an integral part of working life, one that might have significant impact on our experience of work. Broader research is increasingly recognizing the importance and impact of followers to leadership outcomes, and so this area certainly merits future research.”
Scott does acknowledge that using humor with your supervisor carries a risk. Not everyone considers themselves to be a funny person, and not all types of humor are appropriate in the workplace. Sarcasm and aggressive humor can be particularly damaging, but using emotional intelligence can mitigate that risk. When in doubt, Scott says, practice with a scripted joke that is safe for the workplace. Others will likely appreciate the effort.
“You can toss a canned joke out there and get peoples’ responses,” Scott says. “Practice but do so a little bit at a time. Throw a little bit out there and be willing to fail and face-plant on the stage of your workplace. Let that be okay.”
Scott’s research, “Laugh with the boss: A model of subordinate humor, LMX, and employee guarding,” will be presented at the 2018 Southern Management Association conference in Lexington, Kentucky, in November.