Laughing at Your Boss’s Dumb Jokes Can Lower Job Satisfaction: Study

Estimated read time 4 min read

Funny bosses can ease up a serious meeting or lighten the mood, but a new study has found that cracking too many jokes could actually harm employee wellbeing.

The study, recently published in the Academy of Management Journal, looks at how “leader humor” — when someone in a leadership position expresses humor — puts pressure on subordinates to engage in “surface acting,” which includes faking or exaggerating positive emotional reactions.

The study includes a field experiment, laboratory experiment, and a multi-wave field study and was authored by Randall Peterson, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, Xiaoran Hu, an assistant professor of management at the London School of Economics, and Michael Parke and Grace Simon from the University of Pennsylvania.

It found that bosses who make too many jokes actually increase the amount of surface acting employees do, which can then lead to emotional exhaustion or burnout, and lower levels of job satisfaction.

“When the boss tells a joke that is not hilarious, the employee has to decide whether to fake laugh or not,” Peterson told Business Insider via email. “That decision takes energy, no matter the decision. If they fake laugh, that is additional emotional labor that takes energy away from work.” 

In one of the studies, 212 participants from a behavioral lab subject pool at a business school in the northeastern United States took part in what they were told was an hour-long focus group at the university’s bookstore in groups of three to five people. They would complete a survey after.

The participants would enter a breakout room and would be greeted by a focus group leader who would introduce himself as the vice president of sales at the university bookstore. They were really professional actors between the ages of 50 and 60. 

There were two different versions of the task: one in which there was a high power distance between participants and leaders and another where there was a low power distance.

The researchers even instructed focus group leaders to present themselves in two different ways. One was instructed to wear formal business attire, including a navy blue suit and a tie, and to introduce himself as “Mr [Surname.]”

He told participants he was “leading the session,” and they should speak with him as if he were a “formal representative” from the bookstore. 

The second wore business casual attire, such as a navy blue polo shirt, and introduced himself with his first name. He told participants that “we’re all equals here” and to talk to him as if he were a “friend.” 

The researchers instructed some leaders to make jokes like puns and others to make no jokes.

The study found that the leaders who frequently made jokes increased surface acting in followers, which subsequently resulted in poor well-being outcomes, including emotional exhaustion. 

These negative outcomes were more pronounced when there was a bigger power gap between the leader and follower. Subordinates felt more pressure to fake emotions when there was a larger gap.

Part of the reason followers feel this pressure is because displaying the correct emotion might be instrumental to their personal goals and progression.

“Even when followers perceive a leader as genuinely funny, frequent leader humor expression heightens positive display expectations that drive surface acting and aggravate well-being, especially for followers with higher power distance,” the authors wrote. 

The surface acting can trigger a cycle of negative well-being outcomes for employees, per the study. Funny leaders tend to joke more, and if they’re receiving a positive reaction, whether that be surface acting or genuine amusement, it could encourage them to tell even more jokes, causing more surface acting.

However, this doesn’t mean the end of bosses making jokes in the office. In fact, the study finds that “fewer, higher-reward attempts” at quality humor actually have a positive outcome on employee wellbeing as opposed to making too many jokes. 

When leaders are more thoughtful about their humor, it actually alleviates the pressure of surface acting. Peterson advises leaders to use humor “sparingly” instead. 

“As they say in the US Army: Remember when in a leadership role, you are not as funny as you think you are. People laugh because you are the boss,” he said. 

“Mostly, control how much humor you use. A little humor goes a long way because it signals your approval of relief from being serious all of the time. Research strongly supports the notion that laughing a little bit makes us more productive in our work. 

“But you can have too much of a good thing! More is not always better. Or think of humor like marmite — a little goes a long way, and not everyone likes it.”