Office humour

Research reveals that a manager’s misfiring merriment isn't only wearing for his or her employees, but bad for the company’s bottom line.

New research by Gang Zhang, a London Business School doctoral candidate, reveals that a manager’s misfiring merriment is not only wearing for his or her employees, but bad for the company’s bottom line.

This article is provided by the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Office humor

New research by Gang Zhang, a London Business School doctoral candidate, reveals that a manager’s misfiring merriment is not only wearing for his or her employees, but bad for the company’s bottom line. In his research, Zhang explores different aspects of the impact of emotion on employee performance.

In particular, he looks at the use of humour by leaders in organisations, but also considers another aspect of emotion, whether faking positivity in difficult times is a good motivational tactic. Covering interesting and underexplored areas of organisational behaviour, Zhang’s work gives wisecracking managers a reason to pause for reflection, before making their next clever quip. His findings also suggest that papering over the grimaces with a forced smile is not necessarily the best tactic for resolutely positive leaders.

Why study this area of research?

The emotional, as opposed to the cognitive, aspects of leadership are not well studied in organisational behaviour. But emotions are a very important way of influencing people. Getting the best out of others involves connecting with them on an emotional level. Leaders need to manage both the heads and hearts of their followers in order to motivate and inspire them. Emotion is potentially a cheap and effective way of doing that. So it is an important area of study that’s under-researched.

You write about the importance of “affect”. What does that mean?

Affect is about the emotion and mood. Emotion is short term, but strong. Mood is long term, but not very strong. You might say: “I am very excited.” That’s emotion. You might say: “I feel a bit blue.” That’s mood. Both of these are part of affect.

So you looked at a number of different aspects of this issue?

We looked at the leader’s emotion and its effect, depending on whether that emotion is real or fake – emotional sincerity – and how it influences people’s evaluation of the leader. In some situations (take the current financial crisis) leaders are concerned, but in front of their followers they have to show their confidence, that they are in control of the situation. But if they are feeling negative emotions, their followers may be able to tell that they are faking their emotions. We also looked at the effect in different cultures: individualistic cultures, such as the US or the UK, and collectivist cultures, such as China or Japan.

And the other strand of your research?

I also looked at how the leader influences the followers’ emotions. In particular, I looked at humour and whether humour has to be funny to be effective, and what effect self-deprecating humour has – when a leader makes fun of himself.

Is humour-related research an unusual area to study?

Previous research has looked at humour affecting performance, but didn’t consider the impact of funny verses vs non-funny humour, or look at self-deprecating humour. We did a survey of people who worked in restaurants and coffee houses. We asked both the leaders and followers a number of questions. For example, we asked the followers to evaluate whether their leader’s humour was funny or not, and whether they used self-deprecating humour. We asked them how they felt at work, and about their evaluation of the leader. And we asked leaders to rate followers in terms of performance and organisational citizenship behaviour.

What did you find?

First, we discovered that humour has to be funny to be effective. By effective, I mean whether it influences the in-role performance of the followers and organisational citizenship behaviour (good behaviour in the organisation that is not formally recognised). Good humour influences the follower’s positive emotions in work and their positive evaluation of the leader. If my leader tells very funny jokes, I will feel very positive and more motivated to work, have a higher evaluation of the leader and think that I have brighter future in the company.

Was the relationship linear?

Yes the funnier the leader, the better the effect, the less funny the worse the effect.

So if followers find the boss’s jokes unfunny it might have a negative impact on in-role performance and organisational citizenship?

Yes. If your followers think you always make bad jokes, they won’t feel positive emotions and they will have a lower evaluation of you. They may worry about their future in the company, and even the future of the company itself.

And self-deprecating humour?

Where the leader makes fun of themselves it has some negative effects. It doesn’t increase the evaluation of the leader. Followers laugh at the leader, rather than with them.

What would be your advice to leaders, given your findings on humour?

Making good jokes will be very good for the performance of the followers and the organisation. But when you make jokes, remember to take the perspective of the followers and whether they think your jokes are funny. And it is very risky to use self-deprecating humour.

So should leaders be sent to comedy school? Is there sufficient commonality in humour that learning how to be funny will enable you to be humorous from the perspective of an entire team?

It is possible, but very difficult. People from different cultures think different things are funny. At the very least, though, leaders need to be aware that funny humour – funny to followers – is important and can impact on the bottom line of the organisation.

Tell me about the other strand of research – on emotional sincerity?

I created a construct: emotional sincerity. It has two parts: how you express your emotions and how you experience them. If you feel happy and display your happiness (or angry and display that anger) that’s sincere emotion. But if you feel angry but display happiness, that is insincere emotion. So I did experiments to see how this influences the followers’ perceptions of the leader, in terms of integrity and trust. We asked two groups of students to watch videos. Each group saw the same videos, showing a person making a presentation who appears angry and frustrated. We told some groups that the emotions of the subject in the video were spontaneous and the other group that the emotions were controlled, and asked them to look for indicators of that in the video. Then the groups answered questions on leaders’ integrity and the followers’ trust, as if the person in the video was their leader.

What did the study show?

Two things. Leader emotional sincerity is very important. If the leader displays inauthentic emotions it will decrease the leader’s integrity and decrease the followers’ trust. However, in the case of trust, the effect varies across cultures. When a leader fakes emotion, it only diminishes trust in people from an individualistic culture, but doesn’t influence the trust of people from a collectivist culture. In collectivist cultures the most important thing is not about the individual, so you should display appropriate emotions in certain contexts. So it is not the authenticity of the emotion but the appropriateness that is important. But leaders in individualistic cultures have the latitude to display their emotions, so if they fake them people think that they are being manipulative and trust them less.

What are the implications for leaders?

Previously people have suggested that leaders should always display positive emotions, or that they should use emotions strategically. However, our findings suggest that if you don’t feel happy but display happiness and confidence it can backfire. Or if you use your emotions strategically it can have negative consequences. The best thing leaders can do before they display emotion is to manage their emotion. Leaders may feel worried about the situation, but before displaying emotion to the follower, they can think about more positive aspects of the situation, finding opportunities in a crisis, for example. If they are unable to do that and have to be in front of followers, they should avoid showing emotion, be rational, state the facts and be neutral.

So there’s a lot of scope here to impact on that relationship and improve the performance of the followers?

It’s very complicated. Previously people have suggested that leaders should refrain from using emotions and I think this needs to be changed. Emotions can be a very useful tool that leaders use to influence followers. But it is not easy and there are many things the leader needs to pay attention to: whether they are displaying their real or fake emotions. If you use insincere emotions, even when they are appropriate, it may backfire. And also, in terms of using humour, it can have many beneficial impacts, but it can also backfire.

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