NUS Business School study: Joking with employees might lead to bad behaviour

Using humour in the workplace can be a mixed blessing for leaders, with unintended negative behaviour among followers

Employees engaging in increasingly deviant behaviours could be a result of a leader’s jokes, an NUS Business School study has found. The study led by Assistant Professor Sam Yam from the Department of Management & Organisation showed the impact of a leader’s jokes on the behaviours and actions of his or her employees.

A leader’s expression of humour may signal the acceptability of misdemeanours within the workplace. Hence, a perceived higher acceptance of doing something that goes against generally conventional behaviours can lead to an increase in negative behaviour in the workplace. Examples of bad behaviours include being chronically absent from work, ignoring a manager’s instructions, sharing confidential information, falsifying financial claims, or drinking alcohol on the job.

Asst Prof Yam also found that an important factor is the degree to which leaders used “aggressive humour”, such as teasing of staff members. Leaders who adopt this more risky form of humour are more likely to pave the way for employees to behave badly, and least likely to build a sense of work engagement on their teams.

However, evidence still points that humour is an important and effective organisational tool for bosses to successfully motivate their teams to achieve greater performance.


Data was collected from over 400 full-time employees from companies in China and the United States, through two three-wave field studies, each separated by approximately two weeks. Employees were first surveyed to report how humorous their leaders are in the workplace, followed by describing their relationships with their leaders as well as their perceptions of acceptable misdemeanours. The final survey measured participants’ self-reported work engagement and behaviours.


The results demonstrated that leaders can continue to express humour, but need to minimise usage of "aggressive humour" as it will harm their relationship with employees and elicit more deviant behaviours from team members.

Leader humour is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, humour is seen to improve how team members view their social relationship with their leaders – leader-member exchanges. This leads to better work engagement among employees, resulting in employees becoming more

attached to their jobs, more hard working, more enthusiastic, and more productive. On the other hand, leader humour can lead employees to have increased perceptions of the acceptability of norm violation at work, which in turn lead to more employee deviant behaviours.

More crass forms of humour on the part of a leader can also act as a powerful sign to team members that it is tolerable to break rules in negative ways.

Leaders need to set the tone for the workplace

These results reinforce that 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.

“Employees will 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,” Asst Prof Yam concluded.